RELIGIOUS HISTORY OF ARMENIA
Armenia proclaimed its independence from the USSR on 23 September 1991 and on 21 December that year became a member of the Community of Independent States (CIS). Armenia's President Robert Kotcharian, was elected with 59.49% of the votes, on 29 March 1998.
Armenia, or the "Kingdom of Urartù" which flourished between the 9th and 7th centuries BC and referred to in the Bible as Ararat, a volcanic mass, the resting place of Noah's Ark, has been populated since the stone age. The Armenians are descendants of Indo-European peoples who settled there at the end of the seventh century BC. In its difficult history, Armenia has been dominated by Persia, Rome, Byzantium and invaded by Turks, Seljuks, Mongols and Tartars. It came under the Ottoman Empire in 1473. In the 17th century Persia occupied the eastern regions. In western Armenia, between 1894-1918, the Turks carried out ferocious massacres: massive emigration followed. The first independent Republic of Armenia was declared on 28 May 1918. But Turkish hostility continued and so, two years later, on 29 November 1920, in exchange for help, Armenia joined the USSR. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union could Armenia proclaim its independence.
The first Christian nation
Armenia was the first to adopt Christianity as its State religion in 301. The great apostle of Armenia was St Gregory the Illuminator (257-337), although according to tradition the Apostles Sts Bartholomew and Thaddeus preached in Armenia and died there. Gregory, an Armenian of the royal house of the Arsacides, was brought up in Cappadocia where he was instructed in the Christian faith. About 261 he returned to Armenia and after many trials baptized the King and a large number of the court.
The Armenian Apostolic Church
Because of internal war with Persians’ endeavouring to wipe out Christianity, the Bishops of Armenia did not attend the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and they rejected the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon at the Council of Dvin 553-555, and so the Armenian Apostolic Church split from the Churches of Rome and Byzantium. It is one of the Ancient Eastern Churches, distinct from the Orthodox Churches. The Christological differences from Chalcedon have largely been resolved, through a series of formal agreements over the past decade, and today the Apostolics and Catholics of Armenia are virtually identical in tradition liturgy and spirituality.
The hierarchy of the Armenian Apostolic Church is headed by the Catholicos of All Armenians, resident since 1441 at the Catholicate at Etchmiadzin ("the Only-begotten descended"). The present Catholicos is His Holiness Karekin II Nersissian (132nd Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all Americans [sic], elected 26 October 1999). The Armenian Apostolic Church has another Catholicos resident at Antelias, Lebanon and two Patriarchs, in Jerusalem and Constantinople. Most Armenians, both in Armenia and overseas (total estimated 8m) belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church.
10% of Armenians (at home and overseas) are Catholics in communion with Rome. A Patriarchate was established for Armenian Catholics in 1742 in Lebanon. Today the Patriarchate has two dioceses in Syria, ones in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine, France and Argentina. It has an Apostolic Exarchate for the United States and Canada, and Ordinaries in Greece, Romania and Eastern Europe (Armenia). The present Armenian Catholic Patriarch, elected by the synod of Armenian Catholic Bishops in 1999, is His Beatitude Nerses Bedros XIX, resident in Beirut, Lebanon.
The present day communities of Armenian Catholics in Armenia and Georgia are the result of emigration in the 19th century after the pact between Russia and Turkey in 1829, when much of the Armenian population fleeing from disastrous conditions under the Ottoman Empire sought asylum under the Christian protection of the Russian Empire. They settled in the provinces of Shirak, Tashir and Lori (Armenia today), Djavakhk (today Georgia) and Akhalkalaki, Bagdanovka-Ninodzminda. Many Armenian priests educated by the Mechitarist Fathers (Armenian rite Benedictine monks; for a brief history see L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 18 July 2001, p. 7), who settled in Venice in 1717 and Vienna in 1810, became famous bishops.
In 1909 the Pope appointed the first Apostolic Administrator for all the Caucasus, Sarghis Der-Abrahamian, who exercised his mission until the coming of the Soviet regime. In 1916 there were 7 ecclesiastical regions (Shirak, Lori, Akhalkalak, Akhaltsekha, Ardvin, Karin and Crimea), 96 parishes with 71 parish priests serving 172 villages. In these territories there were more than 70 beautiful churches, and at least 60,000 Catholics, 200,000, counting those in Georgia and Russia. But with the arrival of the Soviet regime, Armenian Catholics were persecuted. Between 1936-1939, under Stalin, about 40 priests were killed and many churches were destroyed or used for non-religious purposes.
A new season
In 1991, after the collapse of the USSR, Pope John Paul II reconstructed the Catholic hierarchy of Armenia, appointing as Ordinary for Armenian Catholics in Eastern Europe (Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine and Russia), the Mechitarist Father Nerses Der-Nersessian who was ordained titular Archbishop of Sebaste of the Armenians on 17 November 1992.
In October 1991, after the country was struck by a severe earthquake in December 1988, which took 25,000 lives and left 700,000 homeless, "Redemptoris Mater" Hospital was opened in Ashotsk, as a gift from the Holy Father to the people of Armenia. The hospital is run by Camillian religious.
The Armenian Catholic Church was officially registered in the country in 1992 with its own state recognized statutes. The official see of the Ordinariate is at Gyumri. A second official registration was made in 2000 with a new edition of the statutes. Catholic churches in the province of Shirak have been restored and operate in full legality, but many more, particularly in the Tashir and Ashotsk provinces, have yet to be restored. In many villages, churches will have to be rebuilt from the foundations.
Archbishop Nerses Der-Nersessian is assisted by a Coadjutor, titular Archbishop of Mardin of the Armenians Vartan Kechichian. Catholic priests are scarce: four in Armenia and four in Georgia. There are Catholic nuns of various orders: nine nuns of the Armenian Congregation of the Immaculate Conception, three Eucharist Sisters, six Salesian Sisters and six Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa, who are engaged in catechism and in looking after orphans and disabled children. Two Little Sisters of Jesus work at Ashotsk hospital among the sick and the poor. The local Catholics are proud of their faith and grateful for it. The older ones have terrifying memories of the past under the atheist regime. Today they thank God that the churches are open again and they are free to worship in freedom.
A most pressing problem is the formation of priests. In 1994 a minor seminary was opened at Gyumri, which today has about a dozen candidates for the priesthood. Major seminarians study philosophy and theology in Rome and live at the Pontifical Armenian College founded in 1883 by Pope Leo XIII.
In recent years outstanding ecumenical gestures have come from the friendship between the late Catholicos Karekin I and Pope John Paul II. One of the most significant of these was when the Holy Father requested that Karekin I prepare a series of meditations for the traditional 1999 Good Friday Stations of the Cross liturgy at the Colosseum in Rome.
The Armenian Rite
The Armenian rite used by Catholics and the Apostolics, is one of the five main eastern Christian rites. Originally the language was Syriac, but then ancient Armenian was adopted. In 407, St Mesrop Mashtoz, then a young monk, composed an alphabet of the Armenian language and there was a flourishing of Armenian literature. The translation of the Bible into Armenian was finalized in 433, and the Armenian liturgical calendar celebrates the feast of the Holy Translators on 13 October.
The liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Church contains elements of Syriac, Byzantine and Jerusalem rites. It has a choral nature and uses splendid vestments and its music is some of the most fascinating of the East.
In the Armenian rite, the Eucharist is celebrated with unleavened bread baked the same day and there is no mingling of water with the wine. Certain ancient rites, formerly used also in the Latin rite, have been maintained: the blessing of the water for baptism on the day of the Epiphany; the rite of Opening the Door after Palm Sunday vespers and the solemn blessing of the fields and the four corners of the earth.
Weekly Edition in English
3 October 2001, page 7
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