Church and State Relations in Armenia

Window view of the Armenian Church, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1991

CHURCH AND STATE IN ARMENIA

An Exclusive interview with Ludwig Khachadrian
Minister of Religious Affairs of the Republic of Armenia

By Hratch Tchilingirian


Q. Mr. Khachadrian, could you briefly tell us what are the
responsibilities of the Ministry of Religious Affairs?

Khachadrian: Officially speaking, I am the president of a
subcommittee which deals with Religious Affairs for the
Parliament of the Republic of Armenia. Basically, we are the
liaison between the government and the churches and/or
religious groups or organizations and our primary role is to
establish contacts and cooperation between these groups.

Our relationship with churches and religious groups is based
on law, legal principles and mutual respect.

Q. How does your Ministry differ from the Ministry of the
communist regime?

Khachadrian: The previous Ministry of Religious Affairs was
a sort of KGB arm to suppress religion and the Church in
Armenia. It was a part of the Moscow apparatus, assigned
specifically to watch the church and her operations. In fact,
Moscow exerted its influence on the Church through this
ministry.

Obviously, today that has changed completely. We have
asked the KGB in Armenia to pull out all personnel who
were assigned to the Ministry. Which they did. We have
completely cleared the Ministry of suppressive and ill-
intentioned activities.

Q. What is the position of the Government concerning the
Armenian Church?

Khachadrian: From a legal point of view, there is no
difference between the Armenian Church and other churches
or religious groups, because the legal system that we have
adopted assumes that everybody is free to choose his/her
religion or faith and is free to practice his/her religion.
However, besides legality, the case of the Armenian Church
has a moral and psychological dimension, especially in view
of the fact that the majority of Armenians in Armenia-even if
they were raised as atheists-they consider themselves
children of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Thus naturally,
we, as individuals, feel as children of the Armenian Church.
However, I would like to emphasize once again, that from a
legal point of view, the Armenian Apostolic Church is equal
with all other religious communities or groups.

On the other hand, considering the persecution of the
Armenian Church by the Communists during the past 70
years, we have created special opportunities for the
Armenian Apostolic Church and have given certain
privileges, so that the Church may recover what she lost
during these past 70 years and carry on her normal life. But
let me clarify this further, because it is an important issue.

The Armenian Church is the father of the Armenian people.
This father was imprisoned and stripped of his children for
seventy years. Now that the father is free, others have come
to adopt his orphaned children. What we need to do is give
the father a chance to reclaim his children. Some of the
children would want to go to other homes and some would
return to their father's home. It's up to the children. But, it is
only fair to give the father a chance to embrace his children,
after wrongful imprisonment and persecution.

I have explained this to various denominations and religious
groups who have come to Armenia. All we are saying is give
the father, the Armenian Church, a chance.

Q. You said that you would like to see the Armenian Church
recover her losses. Could you further explain that?

Khachadrian: First, one of the greatest and most tragic
losses of the Armenian Church is her clergy , who were
brutally persecuted during the communist regime (which
explains today's shortage). Also, the limitations and reduction
of the size of the Seminary in Armenia was another
punishment. Secondly, the idea and reality of the parish was
completely wiped out. I believe, the strength of the Church is
her parishes and the life of the parishioners. Now we are
trying to reestablish the parishes-to recreate the sense of
community, mutual responsibility and shared faith-as such,
we are giving practically all the old churches to Etchmiadzin
to make them functional churches for the faithful. There are
requests to build new churches in various regions of Armenia
and we are positively responding to these requests, by giving
them the land, building material, etc.

Here, I should mention that we have also returned the
churches that belonged to the Catholics, for instance in the
village of Panik and the Orthodox Church in Yerevan. The
law is law.

Q. You said earlier that you have given the Armenian
Apostolic Church certain privileges, what are some of these
privileges and what is the legal status of the Armenian
Church?

Khachadrian: First, let me say that the Armenian Apostolic
Church is the only recognized Church in Armenia, the other
Christian churches are recognized as communities. Legally
speaking, the Armenian Church is the only religious entity
that is registered as a church, the other churches, like the
Catholics or Protestant, are registered or are recognized as
religious communities, e.g. these would be registered as the
Community of the Catholic Church in such and such place or
village.

Secondly, the various denominations are permitted to preach
among their community members and in their house of
worship only. The Armenian Apostolic Church is permitted
to preach all over Armenia.

Thirdly, proselytizing (hunt for souls) is forbidden by law.

Fourthly, permission has been granted only to the Armenian
Apostolic Church to teach in the public schools, of course if
the parents and the school authorities consider it important to
offer religious education.

Fifth, all organizations (whether religious or political) whose
headquarters are outside the boundaries of the Republic of
Armenia are not permitted to receive financial support from
their organizations. For example, the headquarters of the
Russian Orthodox Church in Armenia is outside the
boundaries of our Republic, therefore they cannot receive
financial support from Moscow and build churches in
Armenia. They may only receive contributions from outside
for charitable work.

Q. What is the purpose of your visit to the United States?

Khachadrian: First, I wanted to acquaint myself with the
religious life of Armenians in America, particularly the
Armenian Church and church circles. Obviously, this was
not purely for curiosity purposes, but rather, it was prompted
by the new relationship and understanding between Armenia
and Diaspora. As you know, about a year ago, a new
government and authority took power in Armenia by popular
demand and majority vote. Therefore, a new outlook has
emerged from these new developments, in a way a
reevaluation of old established political, ideological
perceptions. Naturally, issues related to religious and moral
norms, issues pertaining to church and state are also being
reevaluated. The government is particularly reassessing,
without hesitation, the unfair treatment of the church by the
Communist authorities during the past 70 years. A healthier
atmosphere should be created, so that the Church may
recover its losses and continue to tend to the religious needs
of the Armenian nation.

New principles have been adopted for church and state
relations. For example, the government is not interfering
with the internal affairs of the Church. We believe that there
should be an atmosphere of understand and mutual respect
on both sides. A few months ago, the Supreme Council of
the Parliament approved a new law concerning freedom of
conscious and religious organization. This was the first time
that such a law was adopted in Armenia.

Q. Can you further explain the process of this law?

Khachadrian: This law is based on the idea of religious
pluralism. It declared separation of Church and State, non-
interference of the State in the affairs of the Church,
protection of the rights for freedom of conscious, freedom to
choose any belief or creed. It basically embraces values that
are universally accepted and Armenia, having chosen the
democratic system, adopted them also. Nevertheless, as I
said earlier, special regard has been given to the Armenian
Apostolic Church only, (this does not please other religious
groups or denominations) so that she may recover her losses
in the near future, and especially the artificial separation that
was created between the people and the church may be lifted.
An opportunity should be given to the people to rediscover
the church and vice versa. These are some of the things that
have been stipulated by the special status given to the
Armenian Apostolic Church.

Obviously, the Church-having been the focal point of
dispersed Armenians throughout the world-represents an
international body as such. In this respect, the Church-as it
has been the case in history-can contribute to the realization
of our national agenda and preservation of our identity in the
diaspora. Naturally-considering the position of the Armenian
Church in the diaspora, its experience, and international
status-the Republic of Armenia has certain expectations and
hopes. The cooperation and expectation of the authorities in
Armenia is necessitated by the urgent needs of our country-
these are very critical issues that we are facing today in
Armenia.

These are some of the considerations that define the purpose
of our visit to the United States.

Q. What about the cults and the new religious movements
that are operating in Armenia?

Khachadrian: I believe the understanding or information of
the diaspora concerning the cults in Armenia is somewhat
inflated or exaggerated. Perhaps, it is a matter of
misinformation. It seems that there is a wide spread opinion
here in the diaspora that these cults have gone out of control
and a critical situation has been created by these cults. I am
not in complete agreement with this opinion or observation.
It is misleading.

Obviously, there are new religious movements operating in
Armenia and at times it seem that they were purposely
organized to cause raptures in Armenian society. The danger
is there. Our concern is not so much about their particular
creed or belief, but over the long term effects of religious
schisms which would last for very long times-even when
political ideologies fade away. Religious raptures sometimes
last for centuries.

I should note here, that the intensity of the post-earthquake
activities of these groups is exhausting. Many religious
groups tried illegally to organize themselves and find
sympathizers. Right now this has slowed down. But there
are still groups and churches who are continuing to attract the
youth into their ranks. According to the law, a religious
organization should have at least 50 members (citizens of
Armenia) for registration. They are trying to gather these 50
people. In several cases, we discovered false signatures in
their formal application. They were trying to register their
relatives without their consent or knowledge. Such things
are going to happen. But we are trying to apply the law in
these instances and put an end to these illegal practices.

Q. Why are young people an easy target?

Khachadrian: You have to remember that for several
generations, including myself, the Armenian youth received
a very strict atheistic education in Armenia. We were never
taught about the church or Christianity. The people in
Armenia do not know the differences between the churches
or denominations. Because, the youth are so hungry for
religious nourishment, when someone speaks in the name of
Christ, they believe him. They think that as long as they are
talking about Christ they must be a legitimate group. But
many of them, when we explain to them or show them that
there are differences between various churches and beliefs,
they are returning to the Mother Church very easily.
Therefore, our job is to provide accurate information and
material about the different religious movements.

Many among the youth are lured into these cults by false
promises. They promise the youth free trips or education
abroad or sometimes material well being. Imagine, for a
young person-who during the communist regime did not have
these opportunities-that could be very appealing. These are
some of the dangerous tactics that are being used by these
groups and cults.

However, I am optimistic for the future. I believe the best
way of overcoming these currents is the strengthening of the
Armenian Apostolic Church. That is the best weapon.
Otherwise, as we all know, no matter how much you restrict
their activities or institute laws, we will not be able to control
these religious groups. We hope that the Armenian Apostolic
Church will reorganize itself and coordinate its activities. I
believe that when the Church reaches out to people who are
hungry for the word of God, then people will respond and
will not look for other directions .

Q. In your opinion, what are some of the major issues in the
Armenian Church today?

Khachadrian: To me personally and for our Government, the
separation of the Armenian Church is a major concern. We
believe that the effectiveness of the cooperation between the
Armenian Apostolic Church and the Government of
Armenia- in terms of international and domestic affairs-was
burdened or at times disturbed by the fact that the Church
was separated. The authorities in Armenia are very
concerned about this separation. In part my visit to America
is a reflection of that concern. I have personally been
involved with these issues in the past few month. I have had
conversations with both Catholicoi Vazken I and Karekin II,
in search of a process by which the problems may be
remedied. Our efforts are progressing very slowly and with
great difficulty. And it seems that we have to accept this for
the time being, since presently things are not moving as
expeditiously as we would like to see them.

In a larger context, our interest in this issue is in terms of
how much does the separation effect the solution of
Armenian national and state issues. The Armenian Church in
the Diaspora, vis-a-vis the clergy, is the unofficial
representative of the Republic of Armenia, since we have not
yet received the official recognition of other countries.

To say the least, we see certain things that need to be
corrected in the present situation of the Church. In our
opinion, the reasons for the separation of the church were
political and presently, these political dynamics are being
used for purposes other than the church. Now that political
and ideological freedom has been established in Armenia-for
all political parties to carry out their agenda-there is no need
anymore to burden the church with politics. As such, we see
the continued separation of the church-besides the moral
aspect of it-as very unproductive and unpractical. In a
situation like this, both the ecclesiastical and political
strength of the church is diminished. Therefore, from the
perspective of the government, it is desirable and acceptable
to "transport" the political struggles from the Diaspora to
Armenia, where issues of political legitimacy are discussed
and where the political parties could challenge the existing
powers, based on universally accepted political processes.
We believe that the Diaspora should primarily engage itself
in solving and formulating an overall national strategy,
rather than weakening itself with internal politics. The
church should be depoliticized as much as possible. And if
the church is going to get involved in politics, that should
only be in national issues and not party politics or state
politics.

Q. What is the solution?

Khachadrian: In order to solve this problem, first of all we
need to remove the political reasons that lead to the
separation of the church. In this respect, the Armenian
Revolutionary Federation [Dashnag Party] has a major role to
play (now that they have their units in Armenia and are
actively participating in the political process in the
homeland).

We thought-that as a result of the new political freedom in
Armenia-the Armenian political parties in the Diaspora (all
of them) would bring their "fight" to Armenia and resolve
their differences in the political process of our homeland.
Unfortunately, this has not happened. On the contrary, when
the Armenian political parties came to Armenia, they brought
with them their diaspora feuds and instead of solving them
they continued to distance themselves from each other. This
is not healthy at all.

Q. What is the situation presently?

Khachadrian: One thing is clear: all the parties agree that the
separation of the church is not beneficial to anyone. And we
have started a very slow, time consuming and difficult
process. Some negotiations are going on-both on political
and ecclesial levels- and non-controversial issues are being
solved, for example, the issue of the Diocese of Greece and
Damascus, etc. But again, these are progressing very slowly.
Nevertheless, I am very hopeful that in time these attempts
will give their fruit.

1991-02-03
e-mail: info@hrach.info
Copyright © 2019 Hratch Tchilingirian. All rights reserved.