In this interview granted exclusively to Nouvelles d'Arménie Magazine, His Holiness Karekin II assesses the spiritual and patriotic renaissance that the Apostolic Church has been experiencing for the last 20 years. While telling us about his vision for the future, he reasserts that the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin has authority over the whole religious institution and confirms the necessity of reinforcing its cohesion on a global scale.
Nouvelles d'Arménie Magazine: Armenia will soon celebrate its twenty years of independence. Was that period favorable to the Armenian Church?
His Holiness Karekin II: Like the Armenian people as a whole, the Church has experienced rather difficult moments, particularly at the beginning of the 20th century. Our religious and administrative life was deeply disrupted and our mission endangered. Eastern Armenia found itself under the hold of an atheistic ideology and, above all, under the dictatorship of the Stalinist regime. In Western Armenia, our national life was strongly shaken by the Genocide. Thus, the priority of the Armenians who were forced into exile and scattered around the world was primarily to ensure their daily survival. It was only a few decades later that they could afford to be preoccupied with the regularization of national life in Armenia and adapt to social and cultural life in the host countries. The Armenian Church has survived this difficult period. The independence of Armenia has opened up new horizons; our ecclesiastical life has faced new challenges and problems that we could not solve on the spot. We are currently experiencing a period of spiritual renewal, in osmosis with the people. On the spiritual level, we are witnessing with great satisfaction a significant rise in the number of weddings and baptisms, and a more frequent involvement of churchgoers in regular religious services. In the years following independence, the legal relations between Church and State have been formalized, the important role and mission of the Church in peoples' lives have also been recognized and underlined in the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia through a special legislation. Since the beginning of that period, one of our major preoccupations has been to spiritually educate our people, who had slightly grown apart from the Church. Our main objective was then to integrate the Church in peoples' lives, and share their problems on a daily basis. A preliminary action thus has started, thanks in particular to the introduction of measures such as the opening of Sunday schools to teach catechism and the offering of optional courses in State high schools. Later on, an agreement was signed with the State, allowing the history of the Armenian Apostolic Church to be part of the high school curriculum. Today, from age ten until the final year, students learn about the history of our Church. Moreover, we are currently preparing textbooks in order to introduce historical concepts in primary school. We have also discussed with AGBU the possibility of administering and transforming the former "Young Pioneer Palaces" into Houses for Armenian Children. There are presently nine of them in Armenia. Each afternoon, around 5,000 young people can learn music, folk dance, sports, and craft skills, under the supervision of specialized personnel. Parents greatly appreciate the fact that their children can benefit from those opportunities rather than engaging in uncontrollable activities. We have also established, under the patronage of the Church in Vagharshapat, the Eurnekian High School, with some 400 students. It is so successful and so renowned that some parents are ready to go there on a daily basis from neighboring cities so that their children could study there. We are also planning to build retirement homes and school centers for children who are in difficult social environments. The hospital complex and the special meals for the retirees are already operational. We derive a great deal of spiritual satisfaction from all this. Finally, the army and prisons represent two other important aspects of the mission of the Church. Since the presence of a cleric or a priest among soldiers is crucial, a great number of them currently serve as military chaplains within the army. The same applies to prisons: our objective is to develop a coherent service of chaplaincy. In order to inform people about these projects and spread the Christian faith and the Gospel, we have developed our own communication system, by creating a television station and a radio program. All these actions have naturally been achieved thanks to the financial support of the faithful Diaspora members and AGBU.
NAM: Nowadays, the question of the vocation of the priests preoccupies many Christian churches. What is the situation of the Armenian Apostolic Church?
His Holiness Karekin II: In that sense, all world religions are certainly facing a crisis of materialism and secularization. Before independence, due to the atheistic nature of the Soviet regime in Armenia, the Armenian patriarchate of Jerusalem was, in the name of the parishes of the Armenian Diaspora and under the supreme authority of the Holy See, mostly training priests and clerics. Shortly after independence, we were keen on improving and stabilizing higher ecclesiastical learning. There was a great need for priests and clerics, both in Armenia and in the Diaspora. This is why at the end of the 1980s, with the blessing of Catholicos Vazgen I, we established a second seminary for higher ecclesiastical learning in Sevan. Seminarians in Etchmiadzin and Sevan quickly numbered 250 men. We also organized classes for a three-year religious training, conceived especially for people who already had a higher education diploma, were often married, and wanted to serve the Church. Thus, during the last ten years, we managed to satisfy the most pressing needs. In these religious educational establishments, 300 clerics have already been ordained. At this point, we have in Armenia around 350 clerics who are on active duty. After independence, among other problems closely linked to the vocation of the priests, another question arose: the necessity of building new churches, and conserving and restructuring the old ones to make them operational. During the Soviet regime, among the thousands of churches that existed on Armenian territory, only 27 were operational, and there were only 30 to 40 clerics in the country. During that era, churches had the status of historical monuments, which ensured them a certain amount of attention on behalf of the State, but during the last years of the system, the State practically stopped caring and many places of worship started needing urgent renovation. These last twenty years, more than 27 churches—both old and new—have been built or rebuilt in the former Soviet republics. Around 100 new churches have been built in Armenia itself, and as many historical churches have been restored. This does not mean that the problem has been solved: we still need a great number of churches, in order to reinforce the spiritual life within the nation. Many cities, like Dilijan, Armavir, Baghramian, Berd or others, whose population numbers in the tens of thousands, do not have their churches. Even in Yerevan, only 14 churches are operational today. We also want to reestablish monastic life, which has today completely disappeared, whereas it is one of the pillars of spiritual life in a nation. The necessary prerequisites have already been established in Harish and in Haghardzin, where we will soon be able to welcome and accommodate monks.
NAM: Do you have enough candidates in order to implement these projects?
His Holiness Karekin II: Throughout the years, the decrease in the number of candidates at seminaries has been obvious, but we were nevertheless able to recruit 80 and 90 candidates every year, of which 50 to 60 were accepted as seminarians, after they successfully passed the exams. At the end of a six-year study program at the seminary, 35 to 40 were accepted. Indeed, each year, 25 to 30 priests, married or celibate, are ordained. Some of them undertake theological and scientific missions; they participate in the development of research and studies for the Church and thus play an essential role. On the other hand, at the national level, they act for the preservation of our cultural heritage, through publishing books and manuscripts, organizing theological conferences and other activities. During the past years, the Holy See has published numerous theological and spiritual books, and organized conferences and seminars on scientific research.
NAM: You have launched a reform in the Church organization, which has notably induced a change in the relations between the communities of the Diaspora and Holy Etchmiadzin, and more specifically with the institution of the dioceses. What were the aims of that reform?
His Holiness Karekin II: After independence, our Church needed to reorganize itself both in Armenia and in the Diaspora. During the Soviet era, we did not have the possibility to do so freely and reinforce the foundations of our national Church. Currently, Holy Etchmiadzin has the possibility and the duty to reconstitute and institutionalize our Church in the best possible way, in order to better serve our people, accomplish our mission efficiently and allow, more particularly within the Diaspora, the preservation of our national identity. Already at the time of Vazgen I and Karekin I, work had begun in order to establish the "Constitution of the Armenian Apostolic Church." Admittedly, it became obvious for us that the question was much more complex and would require solving new difficulties. In order to make up for lost time and create a certain canonic and administrative uniformity in the dioceses of Armenia and of the Diaspora, we decided to address the question of the diocesan structures directly. In order to clear up any misunderstanding, the Central Spiritual Council, to which a great number of primates and laymen from the dioceses in the Diaspora belong, has elaborated regulations that were submitted to all the dioceses in the world for opinions, discussions and comments. The work lasted around three years. Two years ago, its results were validated by an assembly of representatives from the dioceses, in which nearly 90 religious and secular members participated, representing all the dioceses in the world. They underlined the points that each diocese wanted inevitably to include in its charter. Some of them have already adopted the regulations, while others are still making them comply with their own diocesan constitutions. Unfortunately, some parishes have refused to apply some of the articles in the regulations, in particular the Nice (France) parish. Concerning the Geneva parish, it is another story. The problem is linked to the total negation on their behalf of the fact that Catholicos Vazgen I had officially proclaimed the foundations of the Armenian Canonic Diocese of Switzerland in 1992. After these divergences, accusations were hurled at Etchmiadzin, and insinuations made about an alleged intent to take over their assets, which is ridiculous. Holy Etchmiadzin is the center and represents the supreme spiritual authority of the Armenian Church. Its charter has a clear description of the relations between the Holy See and the various dioceses in the parishes. It is totally unacceptable for a few parishioners or clerics to claim particular privileges, at the expense of the interests of the Church. In the Armenian reality, especially within the Diaspora, the Church and national identity are closely linked, and endangering one would reflect on the other. We need thus to reinforce our Church in order for our communities to be more stable and more efficient and better serve the interests of our people. I hope that some conflicts and misunderstandings that we are observing today in certain parishes will be solved without delay and that we will finally be able to build our Church together, on a solid basis.
NAM: How can you overcome those difficulties, considering various rumors we heard about the means being used, including excommunication...
His Holiness Karekin II: As stated previously, our Church needs to be reorganized so that it can carry out its mission more efficiently. Over the centuries, it has elaborated hierarchical, conciliar, and canonical principles, upon which its organization and its operation are based. Our mission consists in trying to behave according to those sacred principles. Let us take, for instance, the case of clerics and members of the congregations of Holy Etchmiadzin, who have served during several years in different parishes. From now on, they have an obligation to come back to Armenia every five years, in order to occupy other functions for one year. If after the sixth year, the parish wishes them to go back, we will do whatever is necessary for that. We believe that this one-year absence will serve the interest of the parish as well as the interests of the members of the clergy. Whenever someone vows to become a priest, he commits to serve in the Church, wherever he has been called, not in a parish that is to his liking. As for excommunication, we are talking, in our clerical life, about very extreme means to which, thank God, we have never resorted. The Armenian Church and its partners have always shown a great willingness to help the members or the faithful through love and dialogue. Unfortunately, as in every national institution, like our Church, unacceptable situations must be dealt with and painful and difficult decisions must be taken. We are always very sorry to see some of our people leave or abandon clerical life. It is only after all consultations and conciliation have failed that, in the interest of our people and the Church, we are sometimes forced to take these measures. Thank God, these are very rare cases, compared to the number of positive aspects of the spiritual life of the members of our clergy.
NAM: You have recently visited Georgia, where the Armenian Church seems to have, among other things, important problems linked to its religious heritage. What are the results of that visit and were the Georgian authorities willing to listen?
His Holiness Karekin II: For a number of years, in fact since the collapse of the Soviet system, we have been experiencing in Georgia important problems linked to the legal recognition of the status of the Armenian diocese and the return of the Armenian churches back in our fold. One must say that religious institutions other than the Georgian Church do not have a legal status there. To that effect, we have sent numerous letters to President Saakashvili, and also to a number of international organizations and political leaders, telling them about the problems of the Armenian community in Georgia. The Armenian Church must have a legal status there, not only a moral or physical status. During my latest visit, at a dinner hosted by the President in honor of the Armenian delegation, we tackled again that painful situation. Three problems were identified: the legal status of the diocese, the return of the churches and their preservation, including the restoration of existing Armenian churches. We have finally reached the conclusion that the question of legal status has to be solved first. We will discuss again the second point, because the Georgian Church also has demands and claims of its own. Indeed, Georgian Patriarch Ilia II has also underlined the question of a few monasteries that are located on Armenian territory and which purportedly belong to the Georgian Church. Concerning the restoration and preservation of the places of worship, President Saakashvili assured us that he had done whatever needed to be done. After we returned to Armenia, the Georgian Parliament modified the existing legislation, to the effect that religious organizations will have the right to register as legal persons. That decision was welcomed by Patriarch Ilia II with some concern and reserve. It also triggered a wave of protest in some segments of Georgian society, wrongly directed at the Armenian Church and community. Thank God, all these questions have been settled now and, in the near future, the Armenian Diocese will enjoy a legal status. We will then tackle the question of the return of the churches.
NAM: There is nowadays in Armenia another controversy around the external signs of wealth sported by a certain number of clerics, which are totally out of place compared to the obvious poverty in Armenia...
His Holiness Karekin II: Of course, we are not saying that all our clerics are perfect, do not commit any errors and do not allow themselves to behave in a way that does not fit their status or vocation. This is evidenced by the fact that every now and then, we are forced to make decisions when these errors become frequent and violate the spirit of our Church. In other cases, we try to correct the errors through counseling and dialogue. Nevertheless, I must indicate that these discussions on the wealth of some servants of the Church are exaggerated and do not correspond to the reality. Most members of the clergy live with very limited means and accomplish their mission with devotion, fully cognizant of their priestly vocation. On the other hand, we understand the feelings of our faithful, and we urge our clerics to stay away from anything that could be considered as being inadmissible. In that domain, we are very strict: the priest or the cleric must be totally devoted to his people; he must be loved and respected by them. Unfortunately, another reality lurks behind this recent campaign of slander, which is the driving force behind all those rumors. Most often, people who denigrate priests or clerics are former clerics, or people who are conditioned by their own interests and who, for various reasons, organize every now and then a campaign against the Church. They are simply unable to prevent us from pursuing the mission we are organizing with our clergy in faith and in the love of Christ and our people, which continues to support us morally and financially and give us the means to pursue our mission.