Back In Karabakh: Church Celebrates 10th Anniversary

Armenian International Magazine (AIM), Volume 10, Number 10, October 1999, pp. 48-51

Back In Karabakh
Diocese of Artsakh Celebrates 10th Anniversary of Re-establishment

By Hratch Tchilingirian

The Diocese of Artsakh celebrates the 10th anniversary of its re-establishment in Mountainous Karabakh. Under the most trying circumstances, the Diocese was officially reopened in the spring of 1989 with a special encyclical by Catholicos Vazgen I of All Armenians, and with the appointment of Bishop Barkev Martirossian as Primate. (He became an Archbishop in June 1999).

From the first days of the self-determination movement in Karabakh over a decade ago, the Diocese has been actively involved in spiritual, moral and charitable ministries. Indeed, before the formal declaration of statehood, the Church was the first national institution that was restored in Karabakh. In the late 1980s it provided much needed moral strength to the struggling population under the spiritual leadership of Archbishop Barkev.
The life of the Diocese of Artsakh in the last 10 years is interwoven with the life of the people of Karabakh.

A native of Karabakh, 44-year-old Archbishop Barkev reflects on the past decade and provides a glimpse of future projects of the Diocese.

AIM: Could you give us a brief historical background about the Church in Karabakh?

ABP. BARKEV: Artsakh (Armenian name for Karabakh) has been one of the 15 provinces of historical Armenia—it has been mentioned as the 13th province. Starting in the fourth century, a religious center was created in Artsakh, which later became known as the Catholicosate of Aghwank (Caucasian Albania). Even later in history, it became known as the Catholicosate of Gandsasar. The seat of the Church had been in different places in different times, first it was in Bardav, then at the monastery of Amaras, then at the historic monastery of St. Hagop. In the 12th-13th centuries, it was moved to the monastery of Gandsasar.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Catholicosate, which had become a Diocese, was moved to Shushi—which was the administrative center of the region and capital of Karabakh—having the Cathedral of All Holy Savior as its center. In the archives we have documentation that in the 1770s the administrative boundaries of the Catholicosate of Aghwank became smaller because of political developments and wars. Nevertheless, 1,736 functioning churches and monasteries were still under the jurisdiction of the Catholicosate. After the treaty of Gulistan in 1815, the Catholicosate’s jurisdiction was further reduced and only 1311 functioning churches and monasteries remained under its care.

During the Soviet period, Artsakh was turned into the Mountainous Karabakh Autonomous Region and gradually all the churches were closed. Indeed, hundreds of churches were closed very rapidly. The clergy were exiled, persecuted, imprisoned or killed. In fact, the last Primate of the Diocese, Bishop Vertaness, in a 1929 letter to the Catholicos in Ejmiatsin—begging him to do something about the situation—mentions that alltogether only 112 churches, 18 monasteries and 276 clergy have remained in Karabakh. The following year, in 1930, all of them were completely closed.

In March 1989, the late Catholicos Vazgen I appointed me Primate of Artsakh, and together with two Vardapets and two priests, he sent us to Karabakh to reopen the historic Diocese of Artsakh. After conducting renovations, on October 1 of that year, on the Feast of Holy Cross of Vartak, we reopened the monastery of Gandsasar and its St. John the Baptist Church. This was a solemn day for us.

Today, we have eight functioning churches in our Diocese. Currently, we are renovating a number of churches in the regions. In January we reopened St. John Church in the regional center of Martakert. Soon we shall consecrate the Holy Asdvadzadzin Church in Aigestan (Baluja). This year we will open eight new churches. In addition to a large scale renovation of a number of churches in our Diocese, we have plans to build a new church in the Martuni region. If we find donors, we shall also start to build a church in the Askeran region, which does not have a place for worship.

By the end of the year, we expect the total number of functioning churches to reach 16. In the next few years we shall add two or three new churches and renovate others in the villages. By 2001, we hope to have 21-23 churches in our Diocese.

You are also building a cathedral in the capital Stepanakert?

The state has allocated a piece of land for this purpose and we are planning to build a church, however, so far we do not have the needed funds to start the work. We have pledges for about 10-20 thousand dollars, which shall be transferred to us shortly. His Holiness Catholicos Aram I of Cilicia has promised to donate $100,000 for this cathedral. Based on the architects’ preliminary estimates, the total cost of the building will reach about $1.7 million. Meanwhile, we have started to rebuild our diocesan headquarters in Stepanakert. We still do not have the funds, but if we have a donor we can quickly complete the work. The skeleton of the building is ready, we have gone up to four stories, but substantially more work is needed.

We have completed the renovation and refurbishment of the diocesan headquarters in Shushi. In Horatagh we built a parsonage but it has not been completed since we don’t have a sponsor; in Khnadsakh we have purchased a small land with a small house, but we still need some funds to finish the work. In Martakert, we have asked the workers to build a parsonage next to the church, but we are short of funds. They are building them for us with credit, so to speak, with the hope that we will pay them in due time.

Do you have enough clergymen serving in these churches?

We do not have enough priests. Today we have 10 priests and, probably, we need 10-15 more.

We have a small Tbranots, a program to train acolytes so that these children would fill the ranks of our clergy in the future. These teenagers attend church services and the Divine Liturgy on a regular basis. We have a special cycle of lectures prepared for them through which we teach them the history, literature and liturgy and fundamental tenets of our theology, as well as the hymns and rituals of the church. This group, made of 4th-10th grade students, is called Church-loving Children’s Association. Eventually, these students will either enter our seminary or we would send them to Ejmiatsin for a few years to complete their studies. Then they’ll be ready for ordination and serve in our Diocese.

What are some of the ministries in your Diocese?

Right now we have a functioning Children’s Christian Theater which has already staged the Nativity of Christ and the Resurrection -- soon they shall stage the martyrdom of Holy Hripsimyants Virgins. This Children’s Theater tours around Karabakh and stages Christian plays in different towns and villages as a live evangelical program to educate our people. This has been one of the most effective ministries for evangelization.

A year ago we established a center for Christian Education in our Diocese with the cooperation of the Mother See of Ejmiatsin and the blessing of the Catholicos. Through this project, we were able to institute Christian education in all schools as a required subject in the state curriculum. Thus, one-hour weekly Armenian Church studies are included in the school curriculum for first to 10th grades. Of course, we are training the teachers for these classes, with proper textbooks and series of lectures. The teachers are paid by the state.
In addition to this program, we also have a network of Sunday Schools throughout Karabakh to further deepen the children’s Christian faith. Currently, in the town center of Martakert, we are planning to establish a Center for Religious Culture where children will learn religious music, sculpture, painting and needle work for use in rituals. Our purpose is to provide religious inspiration in the arts. We have already started this program a year ago, and recently the government has provided a new building for this purpose.

Since 1991, our Diocese has its own research center and publishing house. First we started with the Gandsasar Theological Review and eventually established the Gandsasar Theological Center (in Yerevan). To date, the Center has published 53 titles dealing with religious, spiritual, theological and patristic themes. This project continues to provide much needed and vital religious literature not only for Artsakh but for Armenia as well.

There have been a series of articles in the newspapers about “cults” operating in Artsakh. What are your thoughts about this issue?

There are so many cults in Armenia that from time to time they attempt to establish roots in Artsakh. They came to Artsakh in small numbers, but thank God, we were able to prevent their spread. One of the steps we took in this regard was to make religious education part of the state education curriculum in all schools, including institutions of higher education, so that our children and youth would learn the fundamental tenets of our faith. We have assigned the clergy to visit each army post to preach so that our soldiers would also learn about their faith. In cooperation with the state, our clergy and intellectuals are visiting Karabakh, village by village. There is live interaction with the people, so that the people will know what the creed of the Armenian Apostolic Church is and what it is that the cults are trying to inject in the hearts and minds of our people.

We also provide religious literature, weekly radio broadcasts and occasionally we have television programs where young people have live discussions on religious themes. On major feast days, we give sermons and issue pastoral letters. On occasion, we broadcast sermons live. Also, articles on religion and faith appear regularly in local newspapers. We are actively trying to educate our people so that they remain loyal to the faith of the Armenian Church.

Could you tell us about the Stepanakert government’s proposal for new laws concerning the activities of the “ cults”?

Indeed, the government has decided to tighten our laws so that our people will feel more protected and secure and because this issue also relates to the security of the state itself. If members of the sects refuse to bear arms, they are endangering the security of the state and our peace.

How do you evaluate the role of the Armenian Church in the national struggle in Karabakh?

The clergy are the children of the Armenian Nation and we are obliged to be at our people’s side, in good times and in bad. When it was necessary to create an army, we all participated in the process so that we may provide security to our people. When it was time to create statehood, we immediately cooperated, by all means possible. When it was necessary to negotiate, we gladly brought our contribution to the negotiations process so that peace would be established as soon as possible. When humanitarian assistance was needed for the wounded, for the orphans and the elderly, the church contributed its efforts. We were actively involved in collecting funds for Artsakh. When our spiritual children were in need, we went from country to country and asked the assistance of our compatriots, as well as non-Armenians, who responded warmly. Most importantly, they provided much needed and decisive assistance to our people during the war. The result of those efforts is obvious today: so many lives were saved.

Hratch Tchilingirian
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