by Julia Hakobyan
The mission of today's Armenian Apostolic Church includes its continued battle to undo moral and spiritual damage inflicted by 70 years of soviet anti-religion. The young-adult generation of present-day Armenians represents those whose lives straddle one social regime that maintained power through repression, and another that has yet to fulfill the promises of freedom.
As this generation now raises children who represent the future, it does so with a shallow history in which moral/spiritual foundation was part of the national conscience. Grandparents of the generation that represents future society lived under the influence of a social structure in which practice of religion was a crime, and deference to religion was a betrayal of national party. This is not a promising legacy in a society such as Armenia, where family remains the most influential factor on maturation.
Sociologists say two factors help define a society: religion and language. What, then, has been the impact on the national psyche of a people only recently free to enjoy their spiritual heritage?
A priest's perspective
The Very Reverend Father Hovakim Manukian's spirit lifts when watching young people coming for worship. Girls, who otherwise giggle and gossip, grow quiet. Boys, who otherwise posture for the giggling, gossiping girls, suspend machismo with humility.
The spiritual leader is concerned, though, whether outward reverence for the Church indicates inner understanding of the role of spirituality in development of character.
"It is pleasant seeing so many youth in churches, especially during the Church holidays. But generally they come to the church to light a candle, to cross themselves, to pray for something. They say to each other: 'let's go to the Church for a Mass' but they don't know what that particular Mass means. It is their own perception of church, but not an insightful understanding of their religion."
In the Very Reverend Father's opinion, the communists managed to retard several generations of Armenians in religious education and in the spirit of mercy and morality. Many parents of today's youth used to be communists, and even though now they too attend churches, the gap in their own religious education hampers their effectiveness in teaching religious values to the family.
Very Reverend Father Manukian, head of the Inter-churches Relations Office at Holy Etchmiadzin, says the decades-long religious repression was a test of endurance for the Armenian people and these teenage years after independence are showing that Armenians passed the test.
"No one can say that during the Soviet Union people turned their back on their Church. The dictatorial regime can make people quell or hide their true attitude to the Church but it can not erase the historical memory each Armenian bears," says the Very Reverend Father.
Very Rev. Fr. Manukian says that even during the peak of repression, people did not forget their relations with Church traditions. Women would make the sign of the cross while baking bread, and men would lead family prayers at home after the churches had been locked up or converted into state buildings.
But the gap between symbolism and application of faith cannot be filled by history alone, which is why the Church today prepares lessons on "History of the Armenian Church" for schoolchildren, publishes a religious newspaper and produces films and television programs for broadcast on the Church television station, Shoghakat.
Arkadi Karapetian was an atheist all his life, until the Karabakh war when death could come at any moment...
"I believed in God. I can't explain why and how it happened. I just needed to believe. And since I believe in God I did not want to die un-Christian," says Karapetian.
Karapetian, better known as Ago, is a well-known veteran of the war, one of the initiators of the Karabakh Movement and a member of the first commandos of Karabakh's self-defense troops in the early '90s.
Originally from Karabakh, Karapetian was baptized during the war. He says that the Armenian Church immediately became an ideological symbol of what it meant to be "Armenian."
During the Soviet era, Christianity in Karabakh was suppressed on two sides-by political mandate of the Communists, and from Azerbaijan's policy of elimination of Armenian historical monuments from the region.
"There was no practice of religion in Karabakh. There were churches and monasteries, where the Azerbaijani shepherds took their cattle to pasture. Armenians had great respect toward the spiritual landmarks, but not because they were associated with God, but because they were their historical monuments."
Karapetian, who is 49, says "To deprive the nation of religion means to strip it of its history. For Armenians, cutting off religious practice deprived them of their Christian education and morality. It does not mean that Armenians stopped being Armenian, but a nation that does not know its history is doomed."
Karapetian believes that all powerful empires fell because of a lapse of morality. As for the Soviet Union, he says, it collapsed because none of its concepts of statehood related to goodness or mercy, the foundation of most religions.
From the point of view of psychology, religion-or at least an awareness of belief-is an inseparable part of personality.
"The Communist regime failed because it imposed two concepts that contradict the mentality of humankind-collectivization and atheism. Materially and psychologically, man needs exactly these two factors-possessions and spiritual beliefs," says Karine Nalchajian, lecturer of psychology at the Bryusov Linguistic University.
While the impact of communism is still felt in the Armenian national psyche, the psychologist says its 70-year reign was minor, in terms of global change in mentality.
"Ethnic mentality is formed over thousands of years, not decades. In Soviet times religion was banned, and it seemed that people became atheists. Who can say how many people stopped believing? As soon as churches were opened again, people started to attend because, by his very nature, man is programmed to believe in a supreme power. Mankind without religion is mankind out of control."
If for no other reason, the psychologist says, humankind needs to believe in a supreme being for the sake of discipline.
The Communists, she says, cultivated atheist leaders whose "god" was the party and who feared party punishment. For that reason (the fear of reprimand for "sins") they believed in their own morality.
"The Soviet regime was just a lame political experiment by people who, among other mistakes, devalued religion, a million-year-old component of man's mentality," Nalchajian says. "They created a generation of people who feared other people, instead of fearing gods. But man could worship only gods. This explains why regimes are temporary, but religion is eternal."
A woman of age
Zaruhi Khudikian does not hold degrees in theology or psychology; nor was her faith born of a threat of death or danger. Her belief has been shaped through 50 years of service at Holy Etchmiadzin, where she started as a cleaning lady at the time of Catholicos Vazgen I.
Zaruhi was born in 1930, in the era when repressions on religion started to intensify throughout the Soviet Union. She graduated secondary school in Etchmiadzin in 1947, just when Josef Stalin had allowed Armenian churches limited liberties, and she came to work in Holy Etchmiadzin in 1957. Now she is 70 and all these years she observed the changes in the place that she calls "my home."
"I don't remember much of repressions. During the school years there simply was no talk of Church and religion, as if it did not exist. Then it changed. When the churches were reopened, the believers appeared at once."
The veteran servant of the Church believes whatever current problems Armenia has, they result from the long years of social development in which expression of spirituality was forbidden.
"A religion is something very pure, very innocent. It is very vulnerable as it needs people's attention. No attention, no religion," Zaruhi says. "Our parents were educated on Christian principles. That's why today the old people of my generation are apt to be more merciful than our youth."