The Price of Freedom

Window view of the Armenian Church, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1992


Conversation with His Holiness Vazken I
Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenian
Holy Etchmiadzin, Armenia

By Hratch Tchilingirian

HT: Your Holiness, now that Armenia has become an
independent nation and a democratic system has emerged
in the country, what is the relationship between the Armenian
Church and the Government?

HIS HOLINESS: Indeed, this is a very appropriate question
because we need to clarify church and state relationships. It is
evident that in the past, during the Communist period until
World War II--throughout the Soviet Union, including
Armenia-- the church was persecuted.

From 1938 to 1939, practically all monasteries and churches
were closed. In fact, in Artzakh, Karabagh, it was even earlier
than that. Here in Etchmiadzin, we have a letter from the last Primate of Artzakh,
Bishop Vertanes, which is a significant document in this
respect. The author of the letter writes to the Catholicos of the
time that 18 monasteries and 105 churches have been closed in
Artzakh and he is the only clergyman who has been allowed to
remain in office in the monastery of Kantzasar--which at the
time was the headquarters of the Diocese of Artzakh.
Eventually, that bishop was also arrested and imprisoned in
Baku under false accusations and blames. They released him
after a short period of time on the condition that he will never
return to Artzakh.

After World War II the situation slightly improved because
some churches were reopened, but that was the extent of it.
Further improvement of the situation occurred a little later during
the time when we were elected Catholicos and the subsequent
years; even though our rights were very limited, nevertheless,
20 churches were reopened. As for building new churches, that was unthinkable.

Today, with the declaration of political independence [in
Armenia], the situation has changed drastically, not only has the
persecution of the church disappeared, but also the issue of tolerance has been resolved.
The church today has become independent and self-governing
and is enjoying the auspices of the Government, which has
clarified and exacted the relationship of the church and state
through specific laws, freedom of conscious laws. That law
was examined during several sessions of the Parliament, and
thereafter put to a vote. We also participated in the
discussions. In reality, this law is a public declaration of
freedom of religion and conscious the way it is in all Western
democratic countries. It is interesting, however, that in that
law specific importance is given to the Armenian Apostolic
Church as the national Mother Church.
Accordingly, the Armenian Church has been granted privileges
and as such, the church is a legal entity with all rights to all
property and goods. This law has also accorded freedom to
other church and religious organizations and denominations,
particularly the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.
However, it should be mentioned that the freedom given to
these denominations are limited. They are to practice it in
their respective communities only. Acts of conversion and
proselytization are forbidden.

The law also gives the right of operation to certain cults which
were already
established and were working in the country during the former
system. Recently, in addition to these cults, various new
movements have come to Armenia, such as the Mormons, the
Krishnas, the Pentecostals, the Jehovah's Witnesses and so on.

HT: Do you think that these denominations, if not now,
eventually will want and will
try to expand their activities and demand more freedom?

HIS HOLINESS: We do not think that it will reach to that
point. Nevertheless, such tendencies are evident among these
denominations, particularly, when the difficult economical
situation in Armenia is used as an advantage. For example,
after the earthquake [of 1988], a group of people came from
America and proposed to build a large factory in Armenia. We
ourselves welcomed this proposal, this humanitarian proposal.
However, in time they had plans to build a chapel on the same
site, it was obvious that these people were Mormons and they
were pursuing other missionary goals through this benevolent
act. Naturally, such an activity was not allowed to
take place in Armenia. We are happy to state that when such
incidents occur, the state and the church are cooperative in
solving them. This is very important because the infiltration of
the cults in Armenia is very alarming. It is very sad to see
these groups taking advantage of the difficult economic
situation and the naivete, the goodwill of our people.

HT: This concern is also profoundly felt in the Diaspora by
both the clergy and the
laity. One of the most effective ways of combatting against
these cults is to spread similar evangelical activities which the
Armenian Apostolic Church should organize. What are your
thoughts about this?

HIS HOLINESS: There is no doubt, that is the accepted means
of encounter. There are some programs in this regard, but on a
very small scale. In reality, however, in order to fully address
this issue, it is absolutely necessary to have preachers, scholars
who are prepared in this area, experts who are qualified and
other individuals who have experience. Under the present
circumstances, we need 50-60 preaching priests, yet in all
practical terms, we only have a few as appropriate candidates
for such work. We never anticipated that the freedom of
religion that was granted would create such a situation for
which certainly we were not prepared.

HT: How about the Seminary of Holy Etchmiadzin, where
preachers and individuals
who could do the work ought to be prepared?

HIS HOLINESS: It is so, naturally, and we're happy that
presently the student body has grown tremendously and the
number has reached 110 students. However, in order for this
group to start the work, they need at least three years to prepare
themselves and acquire the knowledge that is needed to do
such work.

HT: Over the years, the diaspora Armenian communities have
developed the parish
system where each parish has its own pastor and church
organizations, and through which the community comes
together under the roof of the church. Do you have any plans to
create such a system in Armenia also?

HIS HOLINESS: Already such a system exists here. All the
churches have their pastors and the rules of the old system have
been lifted. Each church has its Parish Council, Diocesan
Council, just as it is in the Diaspora.

HT: What are the needs of the church today in Armenia, first
and foremost?

HIS HOLINESS: Of course presently, the most concerning
need is the lack of clergymen. We have to prepare servants for
the church in a very short period of time and quickly. The next
question is the issue of new churches. Today many churches
are being reopened and new ones are being put under the
disposal of Etchmiadzin. We have to provide clergymen and
pastors to all these new churches. In addition, we should also
think about the internal diaspora, [Armenian communities
within the boundaries of former Soviet Union]. During the
Soviet period--in the various republics
of the Union--Armenian churches either did not exist or were
destroyed. Today, when most of them are being returned and
new ones are being built and there is a need to build more,
serious work is expected. We are facing great difficulties,
especially in finding building material which is scarce. It
should be mentioned however, that despite these difficulties,
the renovation of many churches has begun.

Here in Etchmiadzin, the complex of the old Kevorkian
Seminary has been returned to us which needs renovation. The
work will start probably sometime before the end of the year.
We hope that the next academic year will start in the new
building. The situation of the Armenian churches in the other
republics is more difficult. We found out that in Russia, the
Ukraine, Moldovia, the Northern Caucauses and in the Baltic
countries, there are more Armenians than we thought--about
two million. These communities now are in need of spiritual
nourishment, cultural gatherings and other opportunities to
bring them together as an organized community. In Middle
Asia, benevolent and cultural associations have been
organized, besides which also
church bodies are being formed gradually. The needs are very
clear. Today, in the Ukraine, there are four Armenian centers:
Lvov, Kiev, Khargov, and Ghrim. For example in Ghrim, a
large Armenian community existed in the past and until today
there are eight 16th-18th century Armenian churches which
have been preserved. These churches are in dire need of major
renovations. Presently, there is only one clergyman for that
entire region. We need at least three or four priests to serve
our people in that area. There is a beautiful Armenia church in
Moldovia, in the capital city of Kishinevi. Recently we visited
the community there which is about 1500 Armenians and the
church which resembles the Cathedral of Etchmiadzin. It also
needs internal
renovations which cannot be delayed if we want to preserve the
building. This is the general picture of the church in the
internal diaspora.

HT: In the present situation, what are the expectations of Your
Holiness from the
Diaspora? How can the Armenian diaspora help Armenia and
the church?

HIS HOLINESS: As far as the Diaspora is concerned, we
cannot be demanding. The Diaspora itself is in great need for
clergymen. On the contrary, very often they apply to us to
provide priests for various communities. Unfortunately, the
monastery in Jerusalem, which could have greatly contributed
in providing clergymen during the past 10-20 years, could not
make a significant or even least contribution in preparing

Whatever we could have expected from the Diaspora, we
received, truly, particularly
the financial help and aid which came on time and continues to
help in the disaster areas. In this respect, we would like to
express our thanks and appreciation to Bishops Hovnan and
Khajag, who did outstanding work in North America to help
Armenia and continue to help with their wise efforts.

HT: Do you see a role for the laity in the preaching ministry?

HIS HOLINESS: Yes, absolutely, if they are appropriately
trained and educated. For example the newspaper
Loosavoritch [Illuminator], which is religious in nature, is
published by the initiative and participation of the laity. In the
beginning it had some political tendencies and it was under the
auspices of the Armenian National Movement. However,
when we had the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the
staff of the newspaper, we were pleasantly surprised; all of
them are educated young men and women, they know
Armenian well, they know their national literature, they read,
they understand and they interpret the Holy Scriptures
adequately. Through our suggestions, they have distanced
themselves from the political currents and today they enjoy
our auspices, including financially. It is such lay individuals
that the church needs to utilize for evangelical purposes. We
also have another group, the Yeghpayragtzootyoon
[Fellowship] of the Armenian Church. We would like to select
the members of our church councils, diocesan councils and
other church bodies from such lay religious organizations.

Copyright © 2024 Hratch Tchilingirian. All rights reserved.