Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenian Church Rebellion

A disaffected priest is sowing the seeds of unrest in Russia's Armenian community
By Rafael Muradian

The Armenian Apostolic Church is teetering on the brink of crisis after a renegade archbishop rebelled against the authority of the Catholikos, Garegin II.

Tiran Kiuregian announced last month that the Diocese of Russia and New Nakhichevan would no longer recognise the church's elected leader whom he publicly accused of nepotism and political intrigues.

And the schism has cast a long shadow over the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia which will be officially celebrated on June 17.

The conflict has been brewing since last October when Kiuregian was dismissed from his post as head of the Russian diocese.

Despite official statements that the archbishop would be given "another senior job", the news sparked an angry protest meeting in Moscow where dozens of church-goers signed a petition to have Kiuregian reinstated.

However, it was not until late May that the archbishop staged his personal rebellion, accusing the church leadership of "ignoring the desires of its parishioners in Russia".

Kiuregian condemned the decision by the Catholikos to appoint his brother, the arch-monk Ezras Nersisian, to head the Russian diocese, claiming this was an infringement of Armenian church law.

Garegin II, then on a pastoral visit to the USA, declined to comment on the archbishop's outburst but announced that the rebel priest had been expelled from the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Kiuregian promptly held a press conference aimed at exposing injustices within the church leadership. He said that Garegin II could not be considered the legitimate Catholikos and that it was unacceptable for "two brothers to serve together in one monastery".

The defrocked archbishop also hit out at his replacement, Ezras Nersisian, formerly head of the St Petersburg parish, who, he said, was firmly under the sway of his brother.

Some observers have pointed out that Kiuregian's disaffection with the Armenian Apostolic Church dates from 1995 when he unsuccessfully stood as a candidate in the elections for a new Catholikos.

Then, in the run-up to the 1999 elections, he co-authored a statement claiming that "the upper echelons of the Armenian government have agreed to support [Garegin II] and set him on the Catholikos' throne".

Kiuregian's rebellion has caused widespread indignation in both Russian and Armenian intellectual circles. Leading figures from the Russian Academy of Sciences dubbed the schism "the seditious act of a mad priest", claiming that "a group of renegades in Moscow is trying to create havoc and besmirch the souls of simple believers".

The academics called on the Armenian community in Russia to rally round Garegin II and his brother.

Their words were echoed by other influential figures including Boris Piotrovsky, director of St Petersburg's Hermitage museum, well-known actresses Rubina Kalantarian and Maria Gambarian, Genrikh Manukian, director of the NII Scientific and Technical Centre, and Artem Totalian, of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences.

They called on Garegin to "save Armenians from Kiuregian's shameful behaviour which sullies the noble image of a servant of the Armenian Church".

The disgraced archbishop was swift to retaliate. "Certain forces in the Armenian government are putting pressure on the Armenian community in Moscow," he said. He then extended his attack on the Armenian Church to a far-ranging criticism of the political establishment in Yerevan.

First Kiuregian claimed, "The Armenian president, Robert Kocharian, is poised to give Nagorny Karabakh back to Azerbaijan." Then he stated that Kocharian was appointed president at the behest of Western powers and with the blessing of his predecessor, Levon Ter-Petrosian.

Ter-Petrosian, said the former archbishop, remained the "true master of the situation" and played the role of a "grey cardinal" in Armenian politics.

Finally, according to the Internet publication, Kiuregian made clear hints that he was planning to lead an opposition movement from within the Armenian diaspora in Russia.

Certainly, the rebellion has done much to tarnish preparations for the 1700th anniversary celebrations. The Union of Armenians in Russia (UAR) described the event as "a means of bringing together our compatriots and creating an environment where popular culture can flourish".

In an official statement, the newly formed organisation concluded, "We have to conclude that the uprising against the Catholikos will cast a long shadow over the celebratory atmosphere which reigns in Russia's Armenian diaspora. We fully support the decision to defrock the former head of the Russian diocese."

The statement points towards a further dimension to Kiuregian's revolt - the struggle for power in Moscow's Armenian community.

Most observers agree that this community is bitterly divided, with disparate factions falling under the influence of leading Armenian businessmen.

The UAR reportedly nurses an ambition to become a uniting force within the Armenian diaspora and, last month, organised a trip to Yerevan for Moscow newspaper editors. This move has been seen as the beginning of a serious campaign to lobby Armenian interests in the Russian capital.

Rafael Muradian is an independent Armenian journalist based in Moscow