By Catherine Tsounis, Contributing Editor
“The Armenian Church, the depository of patriotism and faith, had preserved the old culture. It was the church which revived and protected “the soul of the Armenian people”. Its head is the Catholicos, who resides at Holy Etchmiadzin, near Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.”1
“The Armenian Apostolic Church is seen by many as the custodian of Armenian national identity. It is a member of the World Council of Churches and has participated in ecumenical endeavors. Alongside other Oriental Orthodox churches, it participated since the late 20th century in dialogues with both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in efforts to resolve doctrinal disputes dating back to the Council of Chalcedon. Many of these issues have been resolved.”2
Rev. Fr. Abraham Malkhasyan with Aram Ciamician, Parish Council Chair of the Armenian Church of the Holy Martyrs, Bayside, New York organized a Pilgrimage to Armenia in late August 2018. A historic audience with His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians on Sunday morning, August 19th at Etchmiadzin, Armenia. The Holy Martyrs Church community is energetic with a deep thirst of their roots. The Holy Martyrs Armenian Language School (HMALS) has an international reputation for promoting the Armenian language. Culture and religion.
I am not a member of the Armenian Apostolic church. I became a member of the Pilgrimage to fulfill a dream: understand the Armenian civilization that directed the Byzantine Empire in its military, cultural and religious history from the 600’s to the Fourth Crusade in the 1200’s A.D. I have attended United States events where His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome, spoke. This visit completed my understanding of the leaders of Orthodoxy.
“Your Holiness, we express our deepest gratitude for having us here,” said Rev. Fr. Abraham. “We are here to renew our national and ecclesiastical roots with our church and country. We are amazed how the Mother See (Etchmiadzin religious complex) is growing because o His Holiness’ dedication and love.”
His Holiness responded by saying “welcome to Echmiadzin. We express our love to you in visiting Our Holy Place,Etchmiadzin, where holy people have lived.Etchmiadzin lives in the hearts of the Armenian Diaspora. It is alive in the spiritual life of our church” “The status of the Armenian Apostolic Church within the Republic of Armenia is defined in the country’s constitution. Article 8.1 of the Constitution of Armenia states: “The Republic of Armenia recognizes the exclusive historical mission of the Armenian Apostolic Holy Church as a national church, in the spiritual life, development of the national culture and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia.” 3
His Holiness continued “We are having hard times in Armenia during the past decade. People of the Christian faith are enduring troubled times. We hope for the future, building for the next generations. Our sons are giving their lives for the peace of our country. There is no war in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh). Shooting goes on at borders. The death of our young soldiers continues. The future of Armenia lies in our army of 18-20-year-old youth. It is their duty to defend our borders. The fate of our nation lies in the hands of our military.”
Catholicos Karekin II explained “Our country and government will be happy to solve Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) in a peaceful way. Azerbaijanis aggressive in attitude with the Azeris (Azerbaijani Turks ) favoring problem-solving solution militarily. Every Armenian is ready to give their life for Karabakh. They are helping to defend borders with weapons and whatever they have. HolyEtchmiadzin is one with the government, united, following government policy. Our borders are closed with Turkey and Azerbaijan. The only border open is with Georgia. Arab families saved us during the forced desert marches (genocide). Syria saved us. Changes are taking place. Everyone is dreaming of a kinder country of our dreams. Father Abraham Malkhasyan studied and lived in Armenia, expressing his devotion and love for his country and church. The Holy Martyrs Church is one of the largest and alive communities in America.”
On 15 November 2017, the Armenian parliament adopted the draft law ‘On the Military Service and the Status of Servicemen’ with the second reading and on 29 November it was signed by President Serzh Sargsyan. According to the law, only those men will be eligible for receiving a deferment, who will sign an agreement with the Ministry of Defense obliging them to serve in the army for three years after receiving the Bachelor’s degree. Otherwise, they will be drafted into the army for two years as soon as they reach the age of 18. This means that the study process of prospective Master’s students will be interrupted. According to the former law, the age of boys drafted into the army in Armenia was 18 years old. The military service lasted two years. Those young men, who entered higher education institutions after graduating from high schools received the deferment right — including until receiving Master’s degree.4
Although the Armenians have had a long history in Syria, most arrived there during the Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire. The main killing fields of Armenians were located in the Syrian desert of Deir ez-Zor (Euphrates Valley). During the Genocide, More than a million Armenians were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced from historic Armenia. The native Arabs didn’t hesitate to shelter and support persecuted Armenians. Arabs and Armenians have traditionally had good relations, especially after they sheltered the Armenians during the Armenian Genocide. There was also a minor Arab genocide in Anatolia at the same time, which meant they had an affinity with one another.5
This writer asked His Holiness about his relations with His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome. “We have great relations with the Eastern Orthodox Church. We are brothers with Patriarch Bartholomew. The Patriarch visited Armenia twice: the 1700 Anniversary since the country of Armenia officially adopted Christianity (2001) and the Blessing of the Muron (Holy Oil) 2015 that takes place every seven years.6 When Patriarch Bartholomew came he insisted on performing service to the thousands outdoors in the rain. When we went outside, it stopped raining for the sermon. When we finished, the rain began again. We have Very good relations and are part of the ecumenical movement.”
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew participated in a day-long ecumenical reflection and prayer meeting hosted by Pope Francis on July 7 in Bari, southern Italy, with the heads of Christian Churches of the Middle East for peace in the Middle East. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew participated in a day-long ecumenical reflection and prayer meeting hosted by Pope Francis on July 7 in Bari, southern Italy, with the heads of Christian Churches of the Middle East for peace in the Middle East….. His Holiness Catholicos Aram I of the Armenian Apostolic Church (Holy See of Cilicia) and His Grace Bishop Hovakim of the United Kingdom and Ireland representing His Holiness Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos Karekin II of the Armenian Apostolic Church (Mother See of HolyEtchmiadzin). The gathering was a special occasion in that it brought together nearly all Middle Eastern heads of Churches, as well as the Middle East Council of Churches. The location of the gathering (Bari, Italy) was chosen as a symbol of unity since the relics of St. Nicholas, venerated by both the Catholics and Orthodox, are kept there. The program included the veneration of the relics of St. Nicholas, a prayer service and a closed roundtable between church leaders. The ecumenical prayer service was attended by about 50 000 people.7
This writer was impressed with Catholicos Karekin II down to earth English style of speaking. I marvel at these ancient people, the first to adopt Christianity, who still survive 1700 years later. Their unique Christian faith, drenched in the blood of martyrs, is to be admired. They are the reason we had a Byzantine heritage to talk about because they were the emperors and military, who directed the destiny of Byzantium, leading to the Orthodox conversion of the Russians.
My deepest appreciation to the following persons who inspired this article: Mardiros and Carol Anastasian; Rev. Fr. Abraham Malkhasyan who personally invited me to join the Pilgrimage; Aram Ciamician, who organized the Pilgrimage without personal gain and acted as an Armenian translator with medical services for this writer, his spouse Lara and mother Araksi and family; our exceptional English guide Garush who gave us an insight into the Armenian soul and the group members of the Armenian Church of the Holy Martyrs, Bayside, New York.