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Controversy Overshadows Lavish Festival

The Armenian government is being accused of using a major religious festival to score political points
By Karine Ter-Saakian

Grand plans to spend $1 million on a Christian festival in Armenia have sparked fierce criticism from human rights groups who say lavish celebrations are hardly appropriate in the current climate of economic collapse.


The festival to celebrate 1,700 years of Christianity in Armenia was launched on New Year's Eve with a pageant of 40 girls wearing white cowls and carrying candles. The procession - symbolising St Gregory's first mission to the Caucasus - made its way through the centre of Yerevan to a huge cross which had been erected near the statue of Lenin on the city's main square.


The celebrations will last until June 17, which is recognised as the day when Christianity was adopted in Armenia as an official religion.


The Armenian government has pledged to plough $1 million into the festival which is expected to bring around 150,000 tourists to the former Soviet republic.


Khosrov Arutiunian, chairman of the state commission for organising and staging celebrations, said, "Events will be held not only in Armenia but also abroad. They will enable the international community to get a unique taste of Armenian culture and history."


President Robert Kocharian focused on the festival in his New Year's Eve address to the nation, promising that an estimated $150 million in revenue would be spent on developing tourism and creating new jobs.


But the political overtones of the 1700th anniversary have provoked widespread controversy across Armenia. Ara Saakian, a former vice speaker of the Armenian parliament said, "The powers-that-be are using this jubilee for propaganda purposes by playing on the emotions of ordinary people.


"These festivals have dominated our whole lives - the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, the 100th anniversary of Lenin's birth, the golden jubilee of the USSR and, in between, the endless plenary sessions of the Communist Party. The celebration of 1700 years of Christianity is just the latest in a long line of extravagant celebrations in an impoverished country."


Mikael Danielian, chairman of the Helsinki Association, commented, "I am outraged that the state has adopted this attitude to the festival. The money being lavished on the event could be spent much more sensibly - on improving conditions in Armenian prisons, for example."


He added that government predictions of vast revenues were unfounded. "The festival won't bring in a penny," said Danielian.


The Armenian Apostolic Church has been swift to emphasise the spiritual benefits of the anniversary celebrations. Church leader Garegin II said, "This is a unique opportunity for strengthening faith and orchestrating a renaissance in the Armenian Church. The festival will be a symbol of the unification and spiritual rebirth of Armenian society."


Society, however, remains divided over the issue. Stepan Grigorian, formerly an official in the Armenian foreign ministry, said, "The Armenian church is divorced from the state and its attempts to get involved in secular life will come to no good." He added that the church was more reminiscent of a Soviet religious affairs committee than the house of God.


Paruir Airikian, chairman of the presidential human rights commission, said that the festival had little to do with faith. "They just see Christianity as another business venture," he said. "I personally think that there are very few genuine believers in Armenia today and the church is effectively turning into a state-run institution."


The population at large tends to be more positive. Tigran Nersesian, a doctor, said, "The celebration is vital because it has the power to unite our people. At the present time, one can only welcome any event of this kind, no matter how much it costs."


In the village of Oshakan, one resident said, "It is our faith and we are obliged to celebrate this festival properly."


Many people see a chance to cash in on the predicted influx of tourists. One pensioner commented, "The visitors will need somewhere to stay and we might be able to make a bit of cash on the side."


And a Yerevan university student said, "We can work as guides or bar staff and can earn enough to pay for our studies. There's nothing wrong with that. As for faith, that's something for each individual to decide."


The Church still enjoys enduring respect in many sections of Armenian society. Ashot Galstian, a teacher of Armenian language and literature at the Armenian Pedagogical Institute, said, "For Armenia, Christianity has become a sanctuary in which the language, culture and the nation's identity have been preserved.


"In this respect, the Armenian Church has succeeded in its historical mission, never once faltering in the face of Islam or sectarianism or 70 years of atheism. For that reason, I believe that we are duty bound to stage some sort of celebration to mark the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia."


And political analyst Gagik Avakian comments, "Religion has played a major role in the development of the post-Soviet nations. This is just as apparent in Christianity as it is in Islam. The number of believers and people who perform the rituals has grown markedly. But religion should never become entangled in state politics."


Some observers have noted that the religious festival has been invested with far greater significance than the 10th anniversary of Armenian independence which is also being celebrated this year.


Opposition leaders explain that the existing regime has little desire to highlight the achievements of Levon Ter-Petrosian's post-Soviet government and is more interested in distracting the people's attention from current economic problems.


A spokesman for the Union of Rightwing Forces said, "The authorities have forgotten that they too once blew the trumpet of independence which, in recent times, has started to sound very hollow."


Karine Ter-Saakian is an independent Armenian journalist