Throughout its history, the Armenian church has paralleled so closely the history of the Armenian nation that it is difficult to explain one without touching upon the other. The two, nation and church, are so closely meshed that it appears that the phrase “national church” was specifically coined for the Armenians.
Consequently, since its inception and to this very day, the church has been the center of political and social controversies. The problems of the nation have always deeply affected the church. Despite these controversies and problems, which at times have been considerable, the church as a religious institution has always functioned as one church in all matters of dogma, canons, and liturgy.
Through all the trials and tribulations of the Armenian people, the church has been the rallying point. Patriarch Malachia Ormanian, the renowned Armenian theologian of the 19th and 20th centuries, has written, “…the feature which characterizes it [the Armenian church] in a special degree is its quick and enterprising spirit, which has enabled it, almost unscathed, to go through the most difficult and the most critical situations.”
Christianity came to Armenia in the first century. It is generally acknowledged that the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew were the first to preach the new religion in that region during the years 35-60. According to tradition both apostles were martyred in Armenia.
The early years of Christianity were years of persecution and martyrdom. In spite of this, the young religion took hold, at first underground, and there is evidence suggesting that Christianity in Armenia was more widespread than previously believed, well before the official conversion.
St. Gregory, known as Gregory the Illuminator, was successful in converting King Tiridates, and from the year 301 onward Christianity became the official national religion in Armenia. St. Gregory, considered to be the first Catholicos of the Armenian Church, ruled for twenty-five years. More than any other individual, his imprint on the Armenian church is indelible. Church canons bear his name; homilies written by him are part of the service, and liturgical laws which he initiated are still in use today. He died a little after the Council of Nicaea (325).
Christianity in Armenia, no longer underground, grew rapidly. However, even as it spread, it was apparent that unless the church could communicate with the people in their own language, it could not have a long range effect.
Armenian, at that time, was only a spoken language. Greek and Syriac were the languages used in church. During services it was necessary to have a group of translators who would orally render the Greek and Syriac into Armenian. As Patriarch Ormanian has written, “No permanent means for spiritual edification were at the command of the people. Bare oral translations were insufficient to satisfy the aspirations of the heart.”
Catholicos Sahag, considered to be one of the most advanced scholars of the period, and Mesrob Mashtotz, with the blessing of King Vramshapooh, undertook the task of devising an alphabet. In the year 404, after much traveling to study the various dialects, Mesrob developed the Armenian alphabet, according to tradition, in the province of Balahovit (Valley of Palou). The alphabet consisted of thirty-six characters; subsequently two additional characters were added.
The development of the Armenian alphabet was a great stimulus, not only to the church, but for the nation as a whole, for it opened the doors to one of the most creative and prolific periods in the history of Armenian literature.
The first enterprise using the new alphabet was the translation of the Bible into Armenian, completed in the year 433. It is used today, basically as originally translated, and is acknowledged to be one of the most reliable translations available.
For his part, Mesrob became one of the most revered saints in the Armenian church. His name still creates fervent emotion in the Armenian people, who cling to their language wherever they go.
The development of written Armenian, with a unique alphabet, tended to isolate the Armenians from their powerful neighbors. Whether this situation was beneficial or detrimental is a point that can be debated; however, there is no doubt that the creation of the alphabet enhanced the concept of “national identity.”
For the next two hundred years (440-460), Armenia was divided between east (Persia) and west (Byzantium). In the west, although under foreign domination, the Armenians were permitted to live as Christians. In the east, they enjoyed-to a certain degree-more self-government, but were being forced to abandon their Christian religion in favor of Mazdaism.
In 450, the Persian king commanded all Christians to convert. Persian priests, who were sent to Armenia to begin the conversion process, were killed and the Armenian people revolted under the command of Vartan Mamigonian. Although overwhelmed by the large Persian army, the fierce fighting by the Armenians convinced the Persian king to allow them to retain their religion.
Because of the war, the Armenians were not present at the Council of Chalcedon, and at the Synod of Dvin (505) the Armenian church aligned herself with the non-Chalcedonian churches. Catholicos Papken I (490-516), in a letter to the supporters of Chalcedon, affirmed the decisions of the Councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinple I (381), and Ephesus (431). The document rejected Nestorianism, and stated that since Chalcedon was a “Nestorianizing assembly,” the Armenian church rejected the decisions of that council. The churches which today comprise the group known as the non-Chalcedonian churches are the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the Abyssinian (or Ethiopian) Orthodox Church.
In the seventh century, the Muslim conquest brought yet another conqueror to the land of Armenia. In the mid-ninth century, Armenia recovered its independence briefly, lost it in the tenth century, and in the eleventh century the Seljuk Turks conquered Armenia, thus beginning a long tenure of subjugation, including some of the darkest days faced by the Armenian people.
Throughout this period the Catholicosal Seat-the center of authority-frequently moved from place to place, due to the constant state of political disorder and unrest. The See was initially established in Etchmiadzin, Armenia, where it remained until 485 when it was moved to Dvin by Catholicos Hovhannes Mandakuni. It remained in Dvin for 442 years, after which it was moved to various locations for shorter periods. At various times the See was located in Vaspurakan, Aghtamar, Argina, Ani, Sebastia, Tavploor, Dzamtav, Shougher, Dzovk, and in 1147 in the castle of Romkla on the Euphrates River. After the fall of the Armenian Kingdom of Ani, the Catholicate was transferred from Armenia Major to Cilicia (Lesser Armenia) where a large number of Armenians had settled and organized a dynamic center of ecclesiastical and national life under an independent principality which eventually became known as the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia.
In the year 1293, the Catholicate established its permanent seat in Sis, the capital of the Cilician Armenian Kingdom. During this period there were attempts to unite the Armenian Church with Rome. Prince Levon II especially favored this union, as did some of the clergy. However, the church was able to remain independent from Rome and maintain her orthodox tradition.
The Cilician Kingdom was destroyed by the Mameluks of Egypt in 1375, but the Catholicate continued to maintain its Seat at Sis and assumed the leadership of the nation.During the beginning of the fifteenth century there was a growing movement within lay and religious circles to return the Catholicate to its original location, Etchmiadzin, which it had left almost one thousand years earlier. Armenia Major was in a relatively peaceful time and it was considered an appropriate time to return to Etchmiadzin.
The Catholicos, Krikor Mousabegyantz, did not wish to abandon Sis at this time since there was a large Armenian population in Cilicia. However, he did not oppose elections in Etchmiadzin. so in 1441 an electoral assembly in Armenia Major elected Kirakos Virapetsi, Catholicos of the Holy See of Etchmiadzin.
Therefore, from 1441 until the present time there have existed two Catholicates, each without interruption, each with its own jurisdiction, each independent. Even after the establishment of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks, more than fifteen dioceses were under Cilician rule including Sis, Adana, Hadjin, Payas, Peria, Marash, Zeytoun, Fernooz, Aintab, Antioch, Melitene, Yozgat, Gorun, Cyprus.
For five centuries the two catholicates, for the most part, worked harmoniously with a spirit of cooperation. Any disputes between the two were solved through consultation and compromise.
Both catholicates prospered and served their people. The eighteenth century was a time of advancement for Armenian national and ecclesiastical life. The nineteenth century was marked with an increase in participation of the laity in church affairs, although lay members of the church have always had a strong role. At this time historic Armenia was divided between Russia and Turkey. In Russian Armenia a church constitution called Polojenye was adopted governing the church. In Turkish Armenia a National Constitution was developed by the Armenians and approved by the Ottomans in 1863. This constitution covered not only church administration but the administration of the Armenian millet. This basic constitution is in use today governing the Cilician See and the Armenian communities in Lebanon, and other countries in the Middle East.
Coinciding with this cultural and national awakening of the Armenian population in Turkey was the steady weakening of the Ottoman Empire. At various times during the nineteenth century, the Ottoman government attacked the unarmed Armenians in an attempt to stifle this national awakening.
With the outbreak of World War I, Turkey unleashed a program of systematic extermination of the entire Armenian population. In 1915 there was scarecely no Armenian in Turkey who had not been affected. Men and young boys were forced into work camps and eventually killed. Women, children, and elderly men were sent on death marches. In all, more than a million and a half Armenians perished.
The Armenian population in Cilicia had been largely evaculated after France abandoned the region. The majority found refuge in countries in the Middle East, primarily Syria and Lebanon which were under a French mandate.
The Cilician Catholicos, Sahag II (Khabayan), followed the exodus. From 1921 to 1929 he had no permanent residence. He travelled throughout the Middle East, gathering orphans, visiting the sick, consoling the survivors.
In 1922 the American Near East Relief (later known as the Near East Foundation) established an orphanage for Armenians on the shores of Lebanon along the Mediterranean in a little suburban town called Antelias. There, thousands of Armenian orphans were cared for by the Near East Relief until they could be safely resettled elsewhere.
On February 28, 1928, Catholicos Sahag issued a letter of appeal asking the people for guidance about the future of the Cilician See. Response from both lay and religious leaders was overwhelmingly in support of the See. One year later, Catholicos Sahag expressed the desire to establish the Great House of Cilicia in Antelias at the site of the orphanage. The Near East Foundation was receptive to the pontiff’s request and granted the Antelias site to the Catholicate free of charge for a period of five years. During these five years the Foundation also provided considerable financial assistance. And so, on March 4, 1929, the Great House of Cilicia was established in Antelias, Lebanon, where it continues today.
The buildings which had been used for the orphans were modified and repaired for use as a church, administrative offices, residences for monks, a seminary, and printing plant. Since January, 1932, the Catholicate has published its official publication, Hask.
After consultation with lay and religious members, a Coadjutor, Papken Guleserian was appointed. He had previously been a teacher in the Seminary in Jerusalem. He was consecrated under French authority in Aleppo on May 29, 1930.
Catholicos Sahag also invited Rev. Shahe Kasparian from the United States to act as Dean of the Seminary, which was patterned after the famous Seminary of Armash in Turkey where Patriarch Malachia Ormanian and Patriarch Yeghishe Tourian served as deans.
On June 16, 1935, the Cilician Seminary in Antelias proudly graduated its first class of sixteen young scholars. Many years later one of the sixteen, Zareh Payaslian, became Catholicos Zareh I.
With the end of the five-year period granted to the Catholicate, the Near East Foundation agreed to sell the Antelias site to the Catholicate. The site was purchased with generous contributions from several benefactors.
Unfortunately, both Catholicos-Coadjutor Papken I and Rev. Shahe Kasparian, the outstanding dean of the Seminary, died at a young age, leaving the elderly Catholicos Sahag to continue. The Archbishop of Cyprus, Bedros Sarajian, was appointed vicar-general and succeeded Catholicos Sahag when he died in 1939 at age 90.
Catholicos Bedros I died in 1940 serving only six months. During his reign as vicar-general and the short period as Catholicos, the Cathedral, the memorial chapel, and the seminary building were built.
Subsequently, Karekin Hovsepiantz, the Prelate in the United States, was elected Catholicos and became Karekin I of Cilicia. However, because the world was now in the midst of another great war, he could not travel to Lebanon until 1945.
His reign was marked with a new period of spiritual and intellectual awakening with emphasis on cultural activities. He encouraged the escalation of standards at the Seminary and appointed Bishop Terenig Poladian to serve as its dean. He encouraged the publication of much needed texts and the monthly review, Hask, was enriched and enlarged. Qualified professors from around the world were invited to join the faculty at the Seminary. During this period the Catholicate sent many new priests to various parts of the world to serve Armenian parishes.
Karekin I died in June, 1952, and immediately thereafter Archbishop Khad Achabahian was elected locum tenens, whose main function according to the bylaws, was to prepare for the election of a new catholicos within six months.
From 1952 to 1956, the Electoral Assembly was called and postponed three times. In October, 1955, Archbishop Achabahian resigned and Bishop Khoren Paroyan was elected locum tenens by the General Assembly. At the same session, the date of the election was set for February, 1956.
The Electoral Assembly convened February 14, 1956. Prior to the official opening, the Catholicos of Etchmiadzin, His Holiness Vasgen I, requested a postponement of the elections, in order to give him an opportunity to mediate an agreement between the majority of the delegates and a minority group which opposed the election.
The Assembly convened and decided to postpone the election for one week as His Holiness had requested. One week later, on February 20, the Electoral Assembly met without a reconciliation between the majority and minority opinions. His Holiness Vasgen I left Antelias without participating in the election.
That same morning Bishop Zareh Payaslian was elected Catholicos by an overwhelming majority of the delegates. The young Catholicos assumed the high office dedicating himself to the work of the church and nation, but was saddened by the controversy surrounding his election and said: “You have placed upon my shoulders a most heavy duty, perhaps the heaviest in the world. While others possess worldly and coercive powers, you have given me only one kind of power over this Holy See of the Armenian Church-spiritual power- and only one weapon-the Holy Bible. With the deep faith that we have inherited from our ancestors, we should believe that beyond the transitory powers and values, there exist the moral values and the Holy Bible which are more basic, sublime, and external.”
Unfortunately, the reign of Catholicos Zareh, perhaps the gentlest and holiest of Catholicoses, was marred with the electoral disagreements. Nevertheless, the Seminary flourished, the church moved into its ecumenical period, and young seminarians were sent to Europe and the United States to further their studies.
In a courageous and bold step, His Holiness responded to a petition and assumed religious leadership of a group of Armenian churches in the United States whose members were without spiritual guidance since 1933. This act, together with a somewhat similar situation concerning the dioceses in Iran and Greece, further aggravated the already strained relationship between Cilicia and Etchmiadzin.
Catholicos Zareh died in February, 1963, at age 48, following a massive heart attack. Archbishop Khoren Paroyan was elected in May 1963 to succeed him. The pontificate of Khoren I will be remembered for the extensive physical improvements, not only within the Catholicate, but the construction of schools and apartment buildings outside of Antelias. As Catholicos he personally supervised the acquisition of land in Antelias, Beirut, Bikfaya, and Junieh.
He personally supervised projects such as the establishment of the George Mardigian School, the building of a mausoleum (dedicated to Catholicos Zareh), the renovation of existing buildings, construction of the Veharan (residence and administrative offices), new printing facilities, summer residence in Bikfaya, a museum, and a library.
Catholicos Khoren continued and expanded the See’s involvement in the ecumenical movement. His efforts in that direction established the Great House of Cilicia firmly within the international Christian family.
In 1963, His Holiness Khoren I and His Holiness Vasgen I met in Jerusalem with the hope of beginning a process of reconciliation. At that meeting Catholicos Khoren told Catholicos Vasgen, “Rest assured, Your Holiness, that the Holy See of Cilicia is at your side and will stand as a buttress for the existing and everlasting security of Etchmiadzin. Etchmiadzin will be strengthened when we strengthen the heirarchical Sees and the dioceses of the diaspora, and better organize the Armenian church there. Let us strengthen the Catholicate of Cilicia and the Patriarchate of Jerusalem so that Etchmiadzin, too, will always remain strong. We conclude our words with this declaration: Let us love Etchmidzin, but let us not hate Cilicia. Let us love Cilicia, but let us not hate Etchmiadzin.”
In 1977, having suffered several heart attacks, and realizing that the current conditions in Lebanon required the services of a younger person, His Holiness called for the election of a Catholicos-Coadjutor. On May 22, 1977, Archbishop Karekin Sarkissian, the Prelate of the Eastern United States and Canada, was elected and consecrated one week later. He served as Coadjutor until the death of Khoren I in 1983, at which time he became Catholicos.
Karekin II served the Cilician See until 1995 when on April 5 he was elected and subsequently enthroned as the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians in Holy Etchmiadzin, becoming Karekin I.
Less than three months later, Archbishop Aram Keshishian, the Prelate of Lebanon, was elected and consecrated as the 45th Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia. His Holiness Karekin I officiated during the consecration ceremony with the participation of His Beatitude Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, Patriarch of Jerusalem, and His Beatitude Archbishop Karekin Kazanjian, Patriarch of Constantinople.
Throughout his years of service, Catholicos Aram has been committed to the ecumenical movement and he currently is the Moderator of the Central and Executive Committees of the World Council of Churches-the highest elected office of the WCC. His commitment to the Armenian church and nation is steadfast and he has often spoken and written about the growth and renewel of the Armenian church:
…By survival I do not mean a mere continuity, a barren existence, an inward-looking estate, but a dynamic and creative existence for an effective witness. We are not concerned with our physical survival as such. Nor are we anxious only for the sheer perpetuation of the institutions that we have inherited. We are deeply concerned with the very survival of Christian faith that was transmitted to us as a sacred heritage, as the raison d’etre of our existence.
The secret of survival lies in renewal. I know, we are still suspicious of and reluctant to face changes. Very often we hesitate to introduce even minor modifications into our traditions and institutions. No doubt, the traditions and structures that we still preserve are of great importance to us. But we can no longer afford the blind traditionalism which prevailed at certain times in our respective histories as an absolute necessity for the survival of our churches. We cannot remain imprisoned in a petrified institutionalism that hampers the efficacy of Christian witness.