Armenia Chooses A New Supreme Patriarch

Coinciding with the killings in the Armenian Parliament, the election of the 132nd Supreme Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church has been an acrimonious and unhappy affair.

Armenia Chooses A New Supreme Patriarch

Coinciding with the killings in the Armenian Parliament, the election of the 132nd Supreme Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church has been an acrimonious and unhappy affair.

Friday, 19 November, 1999

Garegin Nersesian, Archbishop of the Ararat Diocese, was elected Supreme Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church and Catholicos of All Armenians on October 27th in Echmiadzin, 20 kilometers outside Yerevan and seat of the Armenian Holy See. Nersesian has assumed the name Garegin the Second and takes over from Garegin the First who died in July 1999 after four years in office.

In a strange coincidence Nersesian's election came at precisely the same moment as gunmen burst into the Armenian Parliament shooting dead the Prime Minister and several other senior politicians and deputies.

The role of the Catholicos remains important in Armenian society despite the low percentage of people still practicing the religion. The Apostolic Church has played a crucial role in preserving the Armenian national identity during seven centuries of invasion, statelessness and emigration.

Nearly two thirds of all ethnic Armenians (nearly 7 million people) now live outside Armenia and the Apostolic Church has survived as virtually the only common link among the diaspora.

Armenia accepted Christianity as a State religion in 301 AD - one of the first, if not the first nation to do so. Armenians are preparing to celebrate 1700 years of Christianity in 2001. And the new Catholicos is expected to play a vital role in the high profile, national celebrations.

Such is the importance of the Church that some religious leaders have complained of political interference in the selection process for the 132nd Catholicos of All Armenians.

In an interview to A1+, an independent Yerevan-based TV station, Archbishop Nerses Pozapalian claimed he, together with the Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Jerusalem, Archbishop Mesrop Mutafian, had been approached by two high-ranking state officials who demanded they back the candidacy of Nersesian. Pozapalian said the two officials referred to a secret decision by the Armenian Security Council to back Nersesian as the new Supreme Patriarch.

Such blatant interference, however, only served to provoke the clergy. Six church leaders published an appeal in the national newspapers calling on the government "to stop this off-hand interference in the elections... and pressure on priests for the benefit of one candidate."

But there is a long tradition of government meddling in the affairs of the Church. Putting aside the activities of the old Soviet regime, in 1995 former President Levon Ter-Petrosian applied considerable pressure to secure the election of Garegin the First to the Catholicos. Some believe Ter-Petrosian was seeking to reconcile a split within the Apostolic Church.

In the 1950s, the Lebanon-based former Catholicosate announced that the Armenian Catholicosate was too deeply under the control of the Soviet regime and KGB. As a result the former split and created an independent administration, although no theological differences ever emerged.

Garegin the First was leader of the Cilician branch and the theory goes that his election was an attempt to reconcile the two churches.

In practice the plan backfired. Prominent human rights activist, Razmik Markosian, argues that during the rule of Garegin the First, church goers came to perceive the church as little more than a state institution and the Supreme Patriarch as little more than another high ranking state official.

A month before the elections the Armenian President met senior church leaders and reiterated the governments wish to see Nersesian, elected as Catholicos. President Robert Kocharian did, however, offer reassurances that the government would interfere no further in the election process.

Pressure continued to be brought to bear, however, on senior clerics within Armenia. The police and tax authorities showed "considerable interest" in many electors and their families.

Archbishop Khajak Parsamian described the behavior of the Armenian government as "arbitrary and insulting to the 1700 years old Armenian Church".

The East American Diocese passed a resolution criticising the Armenian government for "not abiding by the Armenian constitution, according to which the Church and the State are separate".

As if to add fuel to the flames the Armenian government then issued a statement calling on the church to elect only a resident of the present Armenian Republic. The East American Diocesan council responded by reminding the Armenian government that the elections were to select a Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians, not just those living within the current Republic.

Within Armenia too, the government's statement provoked disgust. Distinguished politician and academic, Lenser Agalovian, said "parochial racism is nothing but delirium and an absurdity of the political powers. ...By what criteria shall we elect future Catholicoses, Presidents, deputies - by examining their ears, the colour of their eyes or some other parameters?"

A strong and independent church leader would be too uncomfortable for the political establishment. Often the Supreme Patriarch's opinion can carry more weight with the Armenian people than the President's. Hence the necessity to ensure a docile cleric filled the post, despite the risks of further damaging the church's reputation and unity.

Perhaps it was fitting then that the first public statement from the newly elected Catholicos was not the traditional gratitude prayer, but an announcement of the murders in the Armenian Parliament. On October 31 the Armenian Church buried the victims of that attack postponing the enthronement of Garegin the Second.

Gagik Avakian is an independent journalist in Yerevan

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