Armenia and The Vatican

Window View of the Armenian Church, Vol. 5, No. 3 & 4, 1995

Foreign Policy, the Armenian Church and the Diaspora

A Conversation with Vahan Papazian
Foreign Minister of the Republic of Armenia

by Hratch Tchilingirian

Q. Recently the Republic of Armenia opened an Embassy at
the Vatican, could you give us some details about this

PAPAZIAN: The opening of the Armenian Embassy in the
Vatican was part of our ongoing efforts to establish relations
with foreign countries. As such, it is not a major political
move on our part.

It is an aim of our foreign policy to establish contacts with
international structures, especially European institutions. As
a successor to a former Soviet republic, we are members of
the CIS-which is very important for us-and at the same time
we are participating in other regional and functional
organizations, for example the OSCE, Black Sea
Cooperation Council, and in the future, we hope to
participate in the ECO [Economic Cooperation Organization]
as observers, and others. However, our immediate objective
is to participate in the structures of the European Union-the
European Parliament, the Council of Europe, etc. Of course,
initially as an observer and then hopefully as a full member.
From this perspective-why I am mentioning all these
objectives-it is important for Armenia to deepen its
diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Of course the Vatican
is not a big state, but it has major influence on various
countries and as such Armenian-Vatican relations are
significant. It was with these intentions that we opened an
Embassy in the Vatican.

Q. Is there an Armenian Ambassador in the Vatican?

PAPAZIAN: The Armenian Embassy at the Vatican is not
like other embassies that we've established in other countries.
I say this in the sense that there would not be a permanent
ambassador sitting in the Vatican. Instead, Mr. Armen
Sarkissian-our ambassador to Great Britain and Belgium- has
also been certified to be ambassador to the Vatican. He will
visit the Vatican a few times a year or as needed to have
meetings with Vatican officials, or discuss various issues or
carry out negotiations on behalf of the Republic of Armenia.

Q. How was you meeting with the Pope?

PAPAZIAN: My meeting with the Pope, together with our
ambassador was important. During our meeting I presented
to His Holiness the current situation in Armenia and
Karabakh, and the processes related to the conflict in
Karabakh. We explained to him how we see the political
solution of the conflict. I believe we have his cooperation
and understanding in this regard. We also met with other
senior officials in the Vatican, with whom we discussed
these issues in greater detail. We received assurances that the
Vatican, through its channels, will help Armenia integrate
into European structures.

Q. Were there any discussions about religious issues or inter-
church relations?

PAPAZIAN: We did not discuss religious issues and I believe
we should not. As a representative of the Republic of
Armenia, it is not my place to discuss issues related to the
Armenian Church. The Armenian Church is separate from
the state and as such, I do not have the right to speak in the
name of the Armenian Church with the Pope or with any
other Vatican official. Of course people in the Vatican were
interested in my personal opinions on religious issues-not as
the Foreign Minister but as an Armenian individual. I would
say we had rather an academic discussion on religious
matters and that was the extent of it. Obviously, the Vatican
is interested in religious matters in Armenia and I presented
them my personal views.

I am aware of the sub-text of your question, and let me say a
few words about that. I do not believe that there is a sense of
competition or opposition between the two churches. There
should not be. The Armenian Apostolic Church is not any
church. The Armenian Church is our National Church, and as
such, she needs certain state support-in my opinion. It is
another question whether the state has the capability to do so.
Of course, our people has lived in the orbit of the Armenian
Church for centuries and it will continue to do so. That is
where we belong. Our religious, spiritual and church life will
continue to be the way it has been throughout history.

Q. In this context, how do you characterize the role of the
Armenian Church?

PAPAZIAN: Of course, I do not wish to interfere with the
affairs of the Armenian Church-and I do not have any
intention to interfere-but I believe and hope that
Etchmiadzin, as the religious center of the Armenian nation,
will play a more active, practical and vital role in the life of
our society. I believe this is essential in view of the fact that
our society-having rid itself of Soviet controls, including the
pressures that were put on the church-needs to fill this
spiritual vacuum. Obviously, there are other spiritual sources
in a given society, such as culture, science, etc., but the
church should have its place in the life of the society as well.

So far, Etchmiadzin-in my opinion-has not been able to
satisfy the religious needs of our people. This has caused
some problems because when the church is unable to fill the
spiritual vacuum of society, others will come and do the
work. And we as a state will not fight against that. The state
does not have the right to decide what faith or religion its
citizens should adhere to. It is up to the national church to
decide what to do and how to conduct its mission. This is my
personal opinion.

Q. To continue in this vein, the 1991 law on freedom of
conscience and religion contains several contradictions
concerning the Armenian Church. On the one hand the law
prescribes the separation of church and state and on the other
gives the Armenian Church certain privileges. This is
considered unfair by other churches or religious groups in

PAPAZIAN: I agree with you that the law in this respect is
not perfect. That law was accepted in 1991 when the
Parliament was new and inexperienced. Let us not forget
that Armenia is a new state, where national and political
thought is in a process of development. In this respect, if
there are contradictions in the law they will be refined in
time. Personally, I am not involved with legislative
processes, that's the job of the parliament. However, I believe
that contradictions in the law should be ironed out.
Especially, as Foreign Minister, I think contradictions should
be worked out in accordance with international principles.
Our standards and principles should match internationally
accepted principles. I believe that international principles
accord the Armenian Church full opportunities to continue
and deepen her historical and national role. We cannot
resolve all problems by law.

Q. In the Diaspora, the Armenian Church has been a
surrogate state for Armenians, at least until the Independence
of Armenia. As Foreign Minister, how do you regard the
Armenian Church in the Diaspora today?

PAPAZIAN: You are asking me a very complex question.
Having been involved with these issues for the last three-four
years, I think the issue is related to the various facets and
internal structures of the Diaspora. The existing internal
organization and structures in the Diaspora-including the
church- are not sufficient enough to deal with contemporary
national issues. Of course, I am an Armenian [resident of
Armenia] and I might be mistaken-perhaps a Diaspora
Armenian would better respond to these questions. I do not
reserve the right to criticize, but this is my opinion.

As to what kind of changes or transformations are needed for
the church to respond better to the needs of the people, that is
up to the church to decide how it should make herself more
attractive to the people.

As far as I am concerned, the objective should be the
following (and this pertains not only to the church but also to
other structures): the church has a specific structure,
Etchmiadzin-the center of the church-is in Armenia and in
the final analysis, formal and important decisions and
policies concerning the church are made in Etchmiadzin.
Thus, all the dioceses and the clergy in the Diaspora are
expected to adhere and implement these decisions. In this
respect, the role of the church is very specific, because
Armenia, as a state, cannot intervene in the internal affairs of
the Diaspora. The Armenians of the Diaspora are citizens of
their respective countries (here I am simplifying the issue to
tell you what I think). As such, the church could have more
influence than the Armenian state. It is true that we have our
embassies (not everywhere), which are set up to execute our
policies with the governments and authorities of the
respective countries-not the Armenian communities. But the
church has more freedom and access to the local community
than the embassy. As to what needs to be done, it is difficult
to say anything specific. One thing is clear, the church has
many things to do. I also realize that by simply theorizing or
clarifying the problems you do not necessarily solve them. It
is essential to have the people, the personnel, who would
seriously tackle the problems. I know from my own
experience-what we lack in foreign diplomacy is not policy,
but people.

I am hopeful that Etchmiadzin will gain its strength again,
especially now that we will have a new Catholicos, and I say
this not just as a member of the Armenian Church, but
because our nation, our country needs her.

*This interview was conducted on March 29, 1995, in
Athens. Translated from Armenian by H. Tchilingirian.

Hratch Tchilingirian
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