WASHINGTON, June 1 -- The supreme patriarch and catholicos of all Armenians, His Holiness Karekin II, is emulating Pope John Paul II by embarking on a world pilgrimage to visit his faithful on the eve of the Armenian Church's 1,700th anniversary.
The 50-year-old patriarch is the 132nd in a continuous line of church leaders going back to the 4th century. As such, he presides over the Supreme Spiritual Council (the Armenian Church's governing college of bishops), and is the chief shepherd of the world's 7 million Armenian Apostolic Christians.
Founded in the middle of the 1st century by two of the original apostles of Jesus Christ -- St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew -- the Armenian Church is the oldest state church, and one of the oldest churches in the world.
The church became fully recognized in A.D. 301 by Armenia's King Tiridates III, who was converted to Christianity by St. Gregory the Illuminator (or Enlightener) of Armenia.
As a result, Armenia was the first nation in the world to declare Christianity as its state religion.
The church survived wars, a genocide, and 70 years of Communist rule that imposed strict regulations on it, and limiting the number of priests it could ordain. Today, however, it emerges stronger than it has ever been, although it faces new challenges brought about by the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union 10 years ago.
Similar in beliefs, rites and sacraments to some of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, the Armenian church is a body unto itself and is made up primarily of people of Armenian descent. Priests, in certain categories, are permitted to marry, and confessions are heard en masse or on an individual basis, if preferred, by the person offering confession.
Catholicos Karekin II was nominated to head the church in October 1999. The church is seated at Etchmiadzin, in Armenia. Karekin II succeeded the deceased Catholicos Karekin I, who died in late June 1999.
Despite periods of lost political independence, the Armenian people have survived as both an ethnic and religious group down through the centuries.
Parts of Armenia were lost to the Ottoman Empire centuries ago, and the rest of the country was forced to become a Soviet republic. It integrated with the Soviet Union and lived under Communist rule for 70 years until thecollapse of the U.S.S.R.
Following the 1915 massacre by Ottoman Turks, Armenians scattered to the four corners of the earth. Many resettled in neighboring Syria and Lebanon, but tens of thousands emigrated to Europe, the Americas and Australia.
All throughout this period, the Armenian church served as a spiritual and cultural center for Armenians of all generations, thereby helping to preserve their rich identity.
In the United States and Canada, the Armenian community is about 1 million strong. Approximately 450,000 live in Southern California and an additional 50,000 reside in the greater New York City area. 0-
The following are excerpts of an exclusive interview with United Press International's Life & Mind Editor Claude Salhani. 0- UPI: In your opinion, the Armenian church, which is the oldest state church in the world, has survived seven decades of Communism. How is it growing and is it appealing to the young people? Karekin II: For 70 years the church was tolerated and the activities were very limited. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the church got freedom to act, but the Armenian church was not prepared for the transition from one set of realities, to this new one.
That vacuum which was created over 70 years when the walls of Communism came down, there was this hunger and the people embraced the church very strongly. For example, when this happened, the church did not have enough clergy -- remember 70 years of Communism had curtailed that, we did not have churches, we did not have the means. So one of the first things to do was to prepare to meet the needs of the people. The church suddenly found itself in a position where it had to meet all these needs.
First we had to deal with preparing new clergy, new teachers, religious education classes, and to revitalize the preaching.
All this was part of the reorganization which was all destroyed under Communism. One of the other important things we needed to do, which we are doing, is to build new churches in various cities and towns which were lost over the years. To reopen and repair old historical churches across the country.
One thing we must stress is despite Communism and atheism that came with it, the Armenians never lost their faith deep in their hearts. That was always there. The faith was in the heart of our people, because in all the history, the church played a great role in keeping the identity of the nation. In that way the church was taken as a national church. UPI: Do you have trouble attracting young people to the church? Karekin II: No, in fact it is surprising to note that for every available place in the seminary, we are getting four applications. We have a shortage of priests because we don't have enough seminaries. From 40 students that we were allowed to have during the Communist period, we have 250 now. But it is not enough. UPI: What are your relations with Rome? Karekin II: We have very warm and brotherly relations not only with the Catholic church and the pope as such, but also with all other Christian churches. I was in the Vatican last November and met with Pope John Paul II. I invited the pope to come to Yerevan (the capital of Armenia) and he said he would come to visit. UPI: The relationships between Rome and some Orthodox churches are somewhat tense. How are you getting along with the Western church? Karekin II: This ecumenical spirit that we have has opened us to other churches and has allowed us to have good working relations with the others. We have good contacts throughout existing dioceses and communities. The very fact that we have these diaspora communities in the West and elsewhere ... all these are a bridge between the mother See and the other churches. UPI: Are you happy with the World Council of Churches? Karekin II: We are members of that, we are actively participating, and the moderator is one of our clergy. We have no reason to leave the WCC. We are convinced that in this millennium, the only way to improve everything for mankind in this case is by cooperation and coordination and understanding of all churches. And the WCC is a forum for cooperation and understanding UPI: What is your position on Jerusalem? Karekin II: Our position is that it should have a special status. And any solution should not jeopardize the sanctity of the holy places there, and not jeopardize the free expression and activities of the churches that exist there. UPI: What kind of special status? Karekin II: An open city status. So we are not saying that it should belong under this or that administration. That is not the major concern. Whatever administration it may be, joint administration, or single, the important thing is that whoever manages or administers should not jeopardize the status of Jerusalem as a holy city and the free expression and the free movement (for all faiths). That kind of open city. We are saying internationalization, we are not saying United Nations. UPI: Do you see yourself and the Armenian church negotiating in the dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh? Karekin II: What we are trying to do is to create an atmosphere to facilitate the ground in which the two heads of states (of Armenia and Azerbaijan) can operate towards a peaceful end to this conflict. Along those lines, through the mediation of the head of the Russian Church, Alexiy II (patriarch of Moscow and all Russia) we had a meeting a few months ago with Sheikh ul-Islam Pasha Zadeh of Azerbaijan (the spiritual head of the Azeri-Turkic Muslims and chairman of the Baku-based Muslim Spiritual Board of Transcaucasia).
We expressed our willingness, all three of us, to stand behind through our work to create a positive atmosphere so that the peace process can go ahead. UPI: Do you see any trends towards unification between the Armenian church, Rome and the Orthodox church? Karekin II: Of course that is the final objective of every Christian and it is a lot of work. We pray that it will be a reality one day.