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Holy Etchmiadzin
Holy Etchmiadzin

FREE TO BE FAITHFUL


by John Hughes

On a night in 1953, Harutyun Harutyunian gathered six of his 10 children and said: "It's time."

The festively dressed children quietly left the house with their mother. Harutyun had reasons for not joining them, and worried over sending them into the night from their village of Artis.

Across five kilometers by donkey, Sanam Harutyunian and her children reached Geghard monastery where a priest of the Armenian Apostolic Church baptized the children.

By 1953 the Communist repression on religion had slackened, and people were less fearful.

But Harutyun Harutyunian could not publicly take his children to the church. Besides being a Communist, Harutyun was head of a "kolkhoz," a soviet collective farm. He was obliged to publicly endorse atheism and to propagandize the communist ideology.

The religion of his nation, however, was a foundation for his family of Genocide survivors, and Harutyun would not have his home governed by communism, even though his public life demanded it.

Anahit Harutyunian, one of the six children baptized that night, recalls:

"I was seven years old and I remember the talks between mom and dad, when dad was concerned that we were growing up un-Christian. Three of my elder brothers and sisters were already baptized. Finally one day he said to mom that all is ready, but she should take us to the church at night.

"He was a very courageous man," says Anahit, now 61.

Anahit believes that religion in Armenia survived due to ordinary people in villages and due to people like her father.

Survived. It is an apt word.

And surviving to thrive today, largely through the care of Diaspora Armenians who have honored the bravery and sacrifice of families like the Harutyunians by building magnificent churches where worship is no longer a covert act of rebellion.

In Vanadzor, Saint Grigor Narekatsi church opened in late 2005 to supplement a 50-seat church that had previously been the only house of worship for the city of 100,000. It was a gift to the people from Sarkis and Ruth Bedevian of New Jersey.

And in Gyumri, Saint Hakob church is a testament to the late Sarkis Acopian, who built the church in honor of his granddaughter, Ani, and also saw the beginning of construction of Saint Mesrop church in the Yerevan district of Erebuni.

In Yerevan's "Bangladesh" district, Holy Trinity is the gift of the Manoogian Simone family to the densely populated community that, before 2003, traveled 30 minutes by bus to church, if they went at all.

The Mother See of the worldwide Armenian Church in Holy Etchmiadzin is itself a massive construction site, as new buildings and renovated historic sites signal a vitality of faith.

Yes, survival.

Between 1915-38, the Armenian Apostolic Church lost some 5,000 priests to the Ottoman Empire's genocide and to Josef Stalin's extermination campaign.

Today, their martyrdom is remembered by record numbers of new priests entering the service of the Church-to serve the children and grandchildren of those whose nighttime baptisms were as much defiance as faith.

"The way Communists were treating religion was terrifying," recalls Anahit Harutyunian. "But they could not force Armenians to stop being what they were. As my grandmother from Van used to say, 'Armenians survived Christianity in Muslim lands. What is communism that we can not oppose it too?' People just wanted to be Christians, and they did it."

Submissive but not surrendered

It has not been so long ago that saints were persecuted on Armenian grounds, and churches were turned into museums or warehouses, or simply shuttered by a political regime complicit to the doctrine that "religion is the opium of the masses." Clergy were forced to either abdicate their duties or become subversives. And there were severe penalties for the latter.

In the world's first nation to adopt Christianity, God was outlawed and worship of Him a crime, when Armenia became a Soviet Socialist Republic.

Families, whose very Armenian identity was shaped by Christianity, built their own altars in corners of their homes, and hoped Central Committee-appointed "monitors" would not report them to authorities.

Clerical garments were not allowed in public. Priests caught conducting the Divine Liturgy were exiled. One Catholicos-Khoren I-was murdered in 1938 by assassins believed to be KGB.

The Church could have fared worse. But in WW II, Bishop Gevorg Cheorekjian, who apparently severely interpreted the Apostle Paul's example to be "all things to all men," became a hero to none other than Josef Stalin.

The Man of God became a Man of War, helping raise money to form the "Sasuntzi Davit" (David of Sasun) military tank brigade made up of Armenian soldiers who fought with Russia to resist the Germans. After the war, in 1945, the bishop went to the Kremlin, where Stalin gave Armenia the right to re-establish the Catholicosate. In June of that year, Bishop Cheorekjian became Catholicos Gevorg VI. After he reopened the seminary at Holy Etchmiadzin, and resumed religious publications, the Armenian Church began to enjoy a slight thaw of the anti-God freeze, 40 years before perestroika.

Restrictions remained, however. And they would still be in place when a young cleric, Ktrich Nersissian, began studying at the seminary in the mid-60s.

Today Ktrich Nersissian is His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians since 1999, imbued with a sacred duty to lead the 21st century Church, and a personal history that has shared in the transition from persecution to independence.

The Holy Father can laugh today, telling stories from the days when rules had to be bent so that the Church could perform its obligation to the Armenian people, while still feigning loyalty to the Kremlin.

"In the years of Soviet atheism, the Church, as an institution, was in a submissive state," His Holiness told AGBU in an exclusive interview.

The Communists loosened their reins enough to allow 17 of the over 500 churches in Armenia to reopen, but would not allow more than 35 seminarians at any one time. No more than one or two priests were ordained in a year.

"The ordination of two or three clergymen was cause for great celebration in Etchmiadzin," Karekin II recalls. "Clergy were not free. There was no freedom of speech."

Even in the mid-80s, by the time Father Nersissian had become Vicar of the Araratian Diocese, it was easy to run afoul of the laws of communism . . .

His Holiness Vazgen I asked Bishop Nersissian to deliver a sermon at Holy Etchmiadzin. Later, the text of his sermon was to be printed in a religious journal (a concession of Gorbachev's relaxed policies).

Bishop Nersissian began his sermon saying "Beloved pious faithful . . ."

When the time came for the sermon to be printed, the Communist official placed by the Kremlin to oversee Holy Etchmiadzin summoned the bishop for a "discussion." Recalling the visit 20 years later, the Holy Father remembers that an hour-long argument ensued over use of the words "pious faithful":

"He said to me: 'How can you be so bold to address a group as beloved pious faithful, when there are atheists among Armenians?'

"I said: 'How should I address them? Should I say Dear occasional faithful who are here?'"

His Holiness laughs, recalling that after an hour of a Christian-Communist argument over semantics, he left the official, saying: "Do whatever you want. I've nothing to add."

The phrase was printed as spoken. And other battles between Church and State were still to be fought.

Moscow demanded that Holy Etchmiadzin turn over names of all people who requested baptism.

"We said to (the Kremlin): 'Assign a layman to do that work, and you will see what kind of problems you are facing,'" His Holiness says.

"The authorities were more generous toward the Church than toward some other institutions," the Holy Father says. "We couldn't greatly depart from Moscow, but they were a lot more tolerant."

Still, there were limits.

Around 1985, Bishop Nersissian was ordered by state authorities to "de-frock" a certain priest who had been caught performing a baptism in a church that had been closed.

"I tried to defend the clergyman," His Holiness recalls, "but I also realized that he had broken the law. I had no legal grounds to defend the priest." So the bishop used creative interpretation of language to appease the State and to keep his priest.

Bishop Nersissian suspended the priest for one month, then: "I told the State that I had 'removed his cloak.' The State thought I had literally de-frocked the priest."

The men appointed by the Communist Central Committee to keep an eye on Holy Etchmiadzin were, themselves, Armenian. Often, their loyalties were tested.

"We would tell them: 'In reality you are a man of faith. You're just faking (being atheist) to have this position of authority,'" Karekin II says. "Those men's children were often baptized, but of course (the fathers) couldn't attend.

"Even in those days, people knew that if a child wasn't baptized, he was not a true son of the nation. Then, as now, parents would say 'Let's take our son for baptism, so that he becomes an Armenian.'"
The imposed need for dual identity was illustrated late one night when the now-Catholicos was in his early ministry, a deacon . . .

"Someone knocked forcefully on my door. I was upset and opened the door, ready to reprimand the person for knocking so loud . . .

"There stood this big man with a bushy mustache and the appearance of a true Armenian patriarch. I was completely entranced by his appearance. He said: 'May I come in, I am a soldier of General Andranik (whose troops had defended the Armenians during the Genocide).'

"I was honored that I could receive one of the soldiers of the great Andranik . . .

"He touched himself over the heart and said 'Here, I am Armenian.' And, on the side of his chest where he carried his passport, he said, 'Here, I am a party man.'

"This incident could have been attributed to any party member who conducted his responsibility according to the dictates of Moscow, while allowing the Church to serve the people. (But) the fear was there that by being tolerant they might be noticed and they, themselves, might be punished."

And, though occasionally the beneficiary of a State-appointed Armenian's willingness to look the other way, the Church was far from independent.

"As Primate, I faced many sleepless nights, so that we could provide solutions to protect the interests of the Church, while also fulfilling the demands of Soviet authorities," the Holy Father says.

The interests of the Church were served, financially, from abroad. Discreetly so.

Many at Holy Etchmiadzin know the story of a man coming from abroad bearing a personal letter to the (then) Catholicos. Upon delivering the letter, the Catholicos asked the man to remove his coat. Inside the lining, unknown to the letter carrier, had been sewn $30,000. Often, too, correspondence from abroad was sewn into ecclesiastical garments sent to various dioceses.

The Holy Father is asked whether the ones who maintained Christianity in those days were of stronger faith than today's independent Armenians.

"In Soviet years, preservation of national identity was endangered. People understood that the persecution of their forefathers gave them the determination to survive," he says. "We cannot say that the Christian faith was greater. We believe faith remained the same. Now, believers simply have the freedom to fulfill their spiritual needs."

Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II began his reign with the need to heal.

On October 27, 1999, while he was reading his acceptance speech to delegates from around the world who had come to Holy Etchmiadzin and who had just elected him as Armenia's spiritual leader, the sequestered delegation was interrupted by horror-stricken messengers.

Eight dignitaries, including the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the National Assembly, had just been assassinated on the floor of Parliament.

When the 132nd Catholicos of All Armenians took his first steps into the grounds of Holy Etchmiadzin, the compound was surrounded by armed soldiers. His first official act as Catholicos was to conduct the funerals of state leaders.

The day that should have been a clergyman's crowning glory "was the most difficult day of my life," the Holy Father says.

New challenge for an ancient institution

When being Christian was no longer a crime, the Armenian Apostolic Church faced the awesome task of rekindling faith from embers cooled by two generations of state-imposed atheism.

"The Church was caught unprepared," says an aide to the Catholicos, Reverend Father Ktrij Devejian.

Churches that had been turned into warehouses had to be re-opened as houses of worship. And who would lead the worship? Priests were needed, but the supply had been depleted.

Now that Armenians are free to express their faith, who would teach them? Spiritual growth had been stunted for 70 years; who would revive the desire?

Significantly, how would youth be reclaimed? The Communists had won young minds through education and culture, training thousands of red scarf-wearing students in schools and "Pioneer Palaces," where propaganda was served in doses during class, play and sport. How would the church compete?

By using Communists' methods.

Over the past five years some 1000 literature and history teachers in the public school system have had special training to conduct Christian education classes. Over 300,000 textbooks, published by Holy Etchmiadzin, have been distributed for fourth to tenth grade students throughout Armenia.

On a hillside above central Yerevan in the district of Nor Nork, a building built in the Khrushchev era to train future Communists, is a magnet for the Armenian Apostolic Church.

As part of its re-education of Armenian minds, the Church, through funding from AGBU, took over this "Pioneer Center" and made it an after-school sports and cultural youth center. About 1,000 young people come here, where they learn art, music, language and computers, along with Bible studies. The center teaches dance, and even has a circus class, where youngsters learn gymnastics.

They also get apostolic education here. In 2005, 80 young people were baptized after receiving religious training at the center.

It has a priest, Father Khad, as a director, and a converted atheist, Aida Andreasian, as its principal.

"The Pioneer Centers were created for a certain purpose," says the principal. "Children went there to develop their cultural life, but the purpose was political."

The Church, too, has its purpose.

"It was very difficult to get children to participate in church," says Father Khad, a skilled and trained painter, who was assigned to the center in 2001. "The Church had to go to the children."

The Church came to Nor Nork in 1993. Children now attending include those whose parents were some of the first students of the renewed center.

"One generation comes to replace another," Aida says. "That means there is a demand."

There is, too, an emphasis on quality of performance. Last year, 70 graduates of the center entered institutes of higher learning.

Aida Andreasian says the center functions on an incomparably higher level than in Soviet times. But the principal herself was among those who needed convincing that the Church should be using the youth palace for spiritual growth.

Aida, 48, has seen the center in both its lives. When she started working at the center in 1982, there were 10 instructors and each had 30 students. Now, there is a staff of 86.

She was reluctant to see the Church move in. She was an atheist, but through her work at the center warmed to the message of the Church and is now Christian. Aida became an active member of Saint Sarkis Church, which was built on the grounds of the center by the Gabrellian family of New Jersey. Aida now says she is "almost ready" to teach Church doctrine herself.

She explains her conversion: "I found what I had needed, but never had."

The Church runs eight centers similar to the one in Nor Nork, three in Yerevan and one each in Karakerd, Etchmiadzin, Vanadzor, Ashtarak and Gyumri (which also includes a center for the elderly). Last year, the eight centers enrolled about 4,000 children. Attendance for underprivileged is free. Those who can afford it pay about $50 per year.

While the priest and the principal at Nor Nork emphasize the center's mandate to serve "soul food," more earthly needs are also met here.

Each day, some 200 elderly disadvantaged are served a free meal in the center's canteen, sponsored by AGBU.

Victoria Avanesova is 86 years old. Although an ethnic Armenian, she is nonetheless classified as a "refugee," as she was among the thousands forced to flee Azerbaijan in the late 1980s. She is given a monthly pension of about $17.

She has difficulty walking. But she makes her way to the dining room for the one meal she can count on.

"I don't have a home here," she says. "I have no relatives and I live in a dormitory; what can I get to eat for 6,000 drams (about $17 a month)? I have been coming to this dining room for three years. If it were not for these meals, I might not be alive now."

Emma Sangoyan, 73, is at ease in a school of the arts. She was once an instructor at a musical college. Still, it was difficult for her to get used to the idea that she had to accept charity.

"I have had thousands of students; I worked for 40 years. Have I done it to get as small a pension as this not to be able to buy food for myself? It's very painful.

"I feel so bad, but the warmth here was so much that I managed to overcome the embarrassment. They treat me as if I were their mother. Everybody who visits this place needs it."

Need revealed

Across Yerevan in the residential district locally referred to as "Bangladesh" (because it is far from the center), the need for a church wasn't known, until one was given to the community.

Holy Trinity, consecrated in 2003, now stands on a lot that had been vacant and turned into a trash field in the district of high rises. There are 20 secondary schools in the district, yet there was no church, as the area itself was constructed during Communist times.

Head priest, Father Yesai, says the locals were skeptical about plans to build a church.

"They said, 'Why spend so much money for a church? Give the money to the poor, or build a factory,'" the priest recalls.

Now, however, thousands of residents consider it their parish, with hundreds regularly attending services each Sunday.

Until 2003, the nearest church was in the Malatya district, several miles away and "it was only a chapel, about the size of this office," Father Yesai says. "Before, if at all, people from here went to Yerevan (a 30-minute bus ride away) for church. Nobody from Bangladesh goes to church in Yerevan now."

Holy Trinity, the last project of architect Baghdasar Arzumanian before his death, combines Armenian tradition and modern church needs.

Directly below the sanctuary-and a new trend for churches in Armenia-is an events hall that will accommodate 200. It has a stage for theatrical events and is ringed by Sunday School rooms-which on weekdays are utilized by Holy Trinity's 80-member youth group.

The church has two baptismal fonts. One is for public baptismal, mostly of infants and children. Another is private, and is a concession to the fact that-only 15 years after freedom of religion-the Church must accommodate the needs of adult converts.

Before there was even a sanctuary-to say nothing of dual baptisteries-there was a priest on the site of Holy Trinity.

Father Hovsep, a man for whom becoming a priest "never crossed my mind," moved into a portable cabin (like the ones used to house Gyumri's earthquake survivors) on the building site, and started offering spiritual guidance for those who now have an elegant house of worship.

When Hovsep was 45, and after he had been a Sunday School teacher for many years, the Holy Father asked him if he might consider becoming a priest.

"I thought I was too old, and that time had passed," Father Hovsep says. But his faith, like the man, was mature. He says he was 28 when he first heard the name Jesus Christ.

He had been raised an atheist, and was a reserve army officer when he met someone who was "a secret Christian." Until then, he had never seen a Bible.

"I wanted to buy a Bible," recalls the former engineer. "I was ready to pay 150 rubles-a month's salary-but I couldn't find one in any shop in Yerevan."

The priest now says those were the days when "I was being processed by God."

After the 1988 earthquake, when many religious-based aid agencies started coming to Armenia, Bibles became easily available and the future priest became a Sunday School teacher.

Now, only three years into priesthood at age 48, the former atheist engineer is helping to build a faith factory in Bangladesh.

"I am a blessed man," he says. "But in no way am I satisfied that the work is enough."

Indeed, there is enough work to keep Armenian clergy busy. But, with notable progress, supply is catching up to demand.

In 1999, there were only 100 priests in all of Armenia, including Karabakh. In the last seven years, however, 138 new priests have been ordained, including graduates of the Gevorkian Seminary at Holy Etchmiadzin, and other students who first studied four years in the renovated and expanded Vazgenian Seminary on the peninsula at Lake Sevan.

From 17 pre-independence churches, there are now more than 181 conducting worship in Armenia. Since 1991, 52 of these have been newly constructed and 31 existing churches renovated, attracting thousands of new parishioners. Adding to this number, five new churches are presently under construction and another 10 existing churches are undergoing renovation.

At Holy Etchmiadzin itself, the noise of construction is a daily reminder of movement. Presently construction projects financed by donations from Diaspora, including the families of Louise Manoogian Simone (US, general service building), Mr. and Mrs. Richard Manoogian (US, clergy housing), Mr. and Mrs. Nazar Nazarian (US, office building), Mr. and Mrs. Armen Sarkissian (UK, baptistry and church), Mr. and Mrs. Sarkis Bedevian (US, museum) and Mr. and Mrs. Vatche Manoukian (UK, library), are underway. The office building is already affectionately referred to as Holy Etchmiadzin's "West Wing." In the near future, renovation will begin on the pontifical residence, which hasn't been remodeled since 1962.

The Holy See is also home to a publishing house, from which materials for religious studies are prepared; a tailor shop, where ecclesiastical garments are hand sewn; and a candle factory, which last year produced about 17 percent of the Church's income.

From its "submissive state," the Church is re-emerging and thriving.

But just as independence brought a free-market economy to the financial sector, the Armenian Apostolic Church must minister in a field crowded with unexpected competition.

Faith and a "free market"

The colloquial Armenian word for "sects" literally means "soul hunters." No sooner had Armenia become independent, than unfamiliar-and some say, harmful-religious groups appeared, offering exotic variations on faith. Hari Krishnas were among the first, but were driven out. Now, Mormons, Pentecostals and Jehovah's Witnesses maintain a strong presence.

It is the latter that raise the most concern.

Jehovah's Witnesses proselytize by delivering religious tracts door to door. The closely quartered housing districts of Armenia's cities and towns make their work easy, as hundreds of families can be approached in a matter of hours.

In the Ani district of Gyumri, resident Lida Harutyunian, 58, approaches Father Ktrij Devejian who is on Church business. He calls himself an "administrative" priest, but his cloak and pectoral cross make him a priest all the same, and Lida corners him with her concern.

She says Jehovah's Witnesses are taking over her building and the Church needs to do something about it.

It is a conversation that would not be taking place on this spot-in the door of Saint Hakob-had the Church not already taken measures.

Two years ago, Saint Hakob opened-much like Holy Trinity-in a residential area where tens of thousands had schools, restaurants and businesses, but no church. Opened, too, to skepticism that has warmed to acceptance.

Lida Harutyunian was not among the skeptics.

"No matter how much gold they could have paid, I could not have been fulfilled as much as when I saw that they were building the church," she says. "It was like the dawning of light."

Surrounded by apartment buildings and businesses, Saint Hakob-constructed on funds donated by Mr. and Mrs. Sarkis Acopian of Pennsylvania-fills a previously vacant lot.

"Even the city planners must have intended that something important be built here," Lida says, "because they left this space empty."

Nearly 20 years after Gyumri's catastrophe, still hardly a person passes along this busy walkway near the Pedagogical Institute, whose life wasn't changed by the earthquake. Many who pass are youth who have grown up in the "Earthquake Zone."

Lida and her friend Hasmik Tsaturian, 53, aren't too happy that the church yard has become a hangout for youth. A kid on rollerblades cruises past as if to illustrate their complaint to Father Devejian.

Hasmik lowers her head and conveys to the Father that there have "even been some unseemly occurrences between couples" sitting on the benches in the church's wide courtyard.

The priest, from a different generation and a different culture, takes a wider view of the ladies' concern, saying (though not to them): "I'm delighted to see the young people here. Maybe one day they'll decide to get married in the church."

Already, there are 70 members in Saint Hakob's youth program. Like the church in "Bangladesh," it is constructed with a basement facility for church social and educational events. The cultural center includes a kitchen, and a computer lab.

Smooching youth aside, survivors of communism and of the earthquake, such as Lida and Hasmik, have an escape from proselytizers, if not a means of preventing them.

"It was God's will that light come into this place," Lida says.

Hear the word of the Lord . . .

If the will of God is to bring light to survivors in Gyumri, it must also be to bring a voice to those who can't hear.

The voice comes through the fingers of the Armenian Apostolic Church's first "signing" priest.

Five years ago, an organization representing the 3,500 or so hearing-impaired in Armenia wrote to Holy Etchmiadzin, asking that a priest be trained in sign language. At a church meeting, the bishop called for volunteers.

Father Yesai, the priest of "Bangladesh," raised his hand "because it sounded interesting. I had no idea what it would lead to."

It has led to twice-weekly church-doctrine training for 20-25, mostly young, hearing-impaired. It has led to a group trip to Karabakh. It has led to a service in Khor Virap conducted in sign language. It has led to weddings and baptisms.

"We knew that Christ was born, died and was resurrected. But we had no knowledge about the Church, except the sad stuff," says Marine Harutyunian, through signing interpreter Zubaida Melikian.

Soon into his relation with the hearing-impaired, Father Yesai learned that few ecclesiastical terms existed in Armenian sign language. So, through the sponsorship of the United States Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church, he and Zubaida are preparing a special vocabulary book for that purpose.

The bond between the group and the priest is palpable in an afternoon session at the Center for the Hearing-Impaired in Yerevan. (The group attends Holy Trinity for liturgy and sacraments.)

The designation of a priest just for the hearing-impaired has been met with appreciation and affection by a group that, like other "handicapped" in Armenia, is largely neglected by society and viewed as second-class citizens.

"My grandmother would lead me by the hand to light a candle," says (signs) Sarkis Hovakimian. "I knew that we were asking for something, but I never knew what it meant. I now understand."

Sarkis says it was one of his greatest joys, when Father Yesai chose him to assist in one service at Holy Trinity, where he got to wear the ecclesiastical garment.

Since starting the ministry, Father Yesai has conducted three weddings for hearing-impaired couples. In two of them, he used sign language. But in the other, the families, out of embarrassment, requested that he not sign, underscoring the cultural stigma.

The signing priest is now "godfather" to two children born to couples in the group, and has baptized one of the group's members.

"I get the most satisfaction (from the hearing-impaired ministry)," Father Yesai says. "If I could pick only one thing I could do, I'd do the signing."

Old message, new messengers

Rev. Fr. Ktrij Devejian carries two cell phones (one a Personal Digital Assistant) and is rarely without his laptop computer strapped across the back of his long clerical cloak.

One phone rings, and he enters into a discussion about church matters in Calcutta. The other rings, and he double-checks translated names of medical equipment. (The St. Nersess Hospital in Yerevan, overseen by Holy Etchmiadzin, is undergoing a $6 million renovation. A Swiss agency has offered to help refurbish it, and the Russian-language titles of equipment must be translated into English to send to the Swiss.)

French President Jacques Chirac visited Holy Etchmiadzin, and Father Ktrij was the liaison. The next week it was a delegation from Romania . . .

His title is Foreign Press Secretary, Catholicosate of All Armenians. It is a post that didn't exist until he was appointed to it five years ago.

American-born and educated, architect Armen Devejian was invited to become a priest by His Holiness Karekin II, who gave him the ordination name of Ktrij-the Catholicos's birth name. And he is often the youngish (37) face of the ancient Armenian Church, and perhaps symbolic of its 21st-century mission of outreach.

The new priest with a modern job holds old truths about the calling he has accepted.

Asked what is the hardest part about his new place in the history of the faithful, he replied:

"The greatest challenge is to live up to the people who have come before me," he says. "I know I will never succeed."

And his representation of the Armenian Apostolic Church, whether to French journalists or to a Gyumri pensioner, summarizes this Church, 1,705 years since its founding:

"The Church is not apart from society," he says. "It is a part of society. It is not a building. It is these people."

Reporter Julia Hakobian contributed to this article.

The new Law of the Republic of Armenia regarding the relationship between the Republic of Armenia and the Holy Apostolic Armenian Church

The Republic of Armenia recognizes the Holy Apostolic Armenian Church as the National Church, with the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin as its headquarters and its hierarchal Sees of the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia and the Armenian Patriarchates of Holy Jerusalem and Constantinople; and the exceptional mission of the Holy Apostolic Armenian Church in the spiritual life of the Armenian people, their national cultural development and preservation of their national identity.

The Republic of Armenia recognizes the Holy Apostolic Armenian Church autocephalous (self-governing) within its hierarchal scope.

Originally published in the April 2007 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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