Author: Fuad HILALOV Baku
The Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC ), also known as the Armenian-Gregorian Church, is preparing for a general episcopal meeting to be held on 21-28 September in Echmiadzin. However, given the current tense situation that developed in the AAC in recent years, namely the deep internal discord, the meeting may not take place. Before looking into what is happening, we need to familiarize ourselves with the structure of the AAC.
According to the canonical structure, the AAC is currently managed by two Catholicosates - the Catholicosate of All Armenians with the centre in Echmiadzin and the Cilician Catholicosate with the centre in Antelias (Lebanon). The Catholicosate of Cilicia is actually independent of Echmiadzin. The two centres have disagreements and discord rooted in the distant past. We can also add the Patriarchates of Istanbul and Jerusalem, which are actively engaged in the fight against Echmiadzin.
The escalation of the conflict between the centre and representative offices began in June of this year when at Paris airport Catholicos of All Armenians Garegin II publicly, in the presence of Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandyan and Parliament Speaker Hovik Abrahamyan, insulted the head of the French Diocese of the AAC, Archbishop Norvan Zakarian, with derogatory words and threatened to excommunicate him from Echmiadzin. Garegin II substantiated his anger by the fact that Zakarian is allegedly not taking enough care of the fate of priest Vatche Hayrapetyan, the former spiritual leader in Nice who now serves in the Armenian Church in Strasbourg.
It should be noted that the priest of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Nice, Father Vatche Hayrapetyan, was sentenced to two years in prison in France for assaulting a man. He was also accused of money laundering, pimping and involvement in the trafficking of counterfeit coins. Under the terms of the sentence, he must wear an electronic bracelet. During this period, he is forbidden to stay in Nice and in Provence - Alpes - Cote d'Azur. The fact that father Vatche is a favourite of Garegin II, who could not forgive the head of the French Diocese of the AAC for the negligent attitude to the criminal, adds piquancy to the situation.
This was followed by a letter from Norvan Zakarian about his resignation from the post of abbot of the French Diocese, supported by a letter to Garegin II, in which he expressed his outrage at the public humiliation by the latter. Zakarian said that the same priest Vatche, whom Garegin II backs, is more a businessman with unbridled temper rather than a priest. The archbishop added that the cult of personality existing in Echmiadzin is tiring and that he has neither the desire nor the time to be at the head of the uncontrollable clerics "brought up in the spirit of business". Zakarian said that due to the situation, he is forced to leave the post of head of the French Diocese and Patriarchal Exarch in Western Europe from 1 November 2013 and quit the Supreme Spiritual Council of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The resignation of Zakarian angered the Armenian diaspora in France, and the parish council of St. Mary's Apostolic Church in Nice issued a statement in Nouvelles d' Armenie newspaper where it expressed concern about the painful condition of the parish, as well as serious problems in the Armenian Apostolic Church. The authors of the statement called for the church and the Armenian people to unite in order to get out of the current crisis. "The disease of the Armenian Apostolic Church - that is how the current situation should be described - is an indicator of the general poor state of the Armenian people and weakens its position before the challenge where there is no margin for error or way back...," the statement said.
It seems that meeting those dissatisfied halfway and taking a more liberal stance, Echmiadzin could calm them down and put an end to internal strife. However, subsequent events showed that the heads of the AAC had quite a different approach to everything going on. The Supreme Council of the Armenian Church, which met in Echmiadzin on 30-31 July, called the accusations of the abbot of the French Diocese, Archbishop Zakarian, unsubstantiated, and his resignation was approved before November. The elections for the vacant post of archbishop, according to experts, were originally rigged, and as a result, another favourite disciple of Garegin II - Vigen Haykazyan - will be "appointed" archbishop.
At the same time, Echmiadzin began promoting Garegin II among the world Armenians and launched a campaign against objectionable people. Thus, the Armenian AMGA TV channel, broadcasting in the US, showed an interview with a businessman named Michael (last name not given), who spoke as a staunch defender of the Catholicos of All Armenians and publicly accused the former head of the New Naxcivan and Russian Diocese of the ACC, Archbishop Tiran, of stealing millions of dollars and even drug trafficking.
In 2001, Garegin II dismissed Tiran and appointed his younger brother Yezras Nersisyan to his post. The subsequent events exacerbated the discord between the representatives of the Armenian Church even more. Thus, the conflict was joined by one of the most respected representatives of the Armenian clergy - Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nurhan Manoogian.
Jerusalem against Echmiadzin
The Jerusalem Patriarchate, which is functioning independently, has special scores to settle with Echmiadzin. The Armenian newspaper Aravot published excerpts from Patriarch Nurhan Manoogian's letter to Catholicos Garegin II, in which revelatory moments resounded like a bolt from the blue in Armenian society.
In the letter, the Patriarch expresses surprise at the report of the Supreme Spiritual Council about the resignation of the head of the French Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Archbishop Norvan Zakarian. Nurhan Manoogian noted that the decision of the meeting made a bad and unpleasant impression - how can one neglect the head of the church for the sake of a simple priest? Then, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem adds: "If I am not mistaken, the term of the leadership of Archbishop Norvan was ending in November, and the members of the Supreme Spiritual Council could 'accept' his resignation then. Do you really want to extend the list of acts that undermine your image as 'Builder Catholicos'?" The letter also noted that over the years he became convinced that the Supreme Patriarch was more interested in external and material values. The priest expresses concern that in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, there can be no healthy generation, and this will harm the nation and the mother-church, while there is a great need for advanced clerics adhering to Puritanism than clerics licking the heels. In his letter to Catholicos, Nurhan Manoogian also said in protest that he would not take part in the meeting of bishops to be held on 21-28 September.
This letter is nothing more than a call for Garegin II to abdicate. It is notable that almost immediately after the above statement, the Jerusalem Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Manoogian, visited the Great House of Cilicia and met with Catholicos Aram I, another opponent of Echmiadzin. It is not hard to guess what the rivals of Garegin were talking about.
In all of these conflicts and splits, there is a positive thing. When everyone criticizes and blames each other, diseases long-entrenched in the Armenian spiritual environment are revealed. For example, each side is accusing the other of interest in material values and craving for luxury, which is not befitting a spiritual person. Here we should recall another recent scandal involving the governor of the Ararat Patriarchal Diocese of the AAC, Archbishop Navasard Kchoyan. The latter, together with businessman Ashot Sukiasyan and ... Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan, became "famous" after an offshore scandal involving large-scale fraud and money laundering. But despite the scandal, he continues to safely drive his expensive Bentley. According to the Armenian newspaper Graparak, the archbishop even acted as a mediator in a fateful dispute between serious criminal circles, and as a result, one of the parties gave him a Bentley as a sign of gratitude.
"Mortal sins" of priests
According to experts, the basis of quarrels between Echmiadzin and the Patriarchates is "material" interests. Control over cash flows within the AAC, but outside of Armenia is a bone of contention between Garegin II and his opponents. An ordinary moneymaker, like any mortal, can rely on confession as a means of remission of his sins. But how can one explain the actions of those who, being priests, are bearers of these ungodly passions?
Garegin II is also accused of promoting a cult of personality, supporting clerics that "lick the heels" and a kind of simony - long-standing institutional promotion of stooges of the Christian Church, when all church positions are held by people unquestioningly carrying out the will of the patriarch. Isn't vanity and pride other deadly sins of the Christian faith?
In our view, however, the issue is not about Catholicoses affected by the cult of personality, archbishops with underworld ideas or even pimp priests... The issue is about anger ... For more than 150 years already Armenian religious communities have ceased to be centres of service to God and have simply become "pockets of Armenian revolutionary parties that developed the most diabolical programmes". That's what Archbishop Leon (Ghevont) Tourian, who was brutally murdered in 1933 by members of Dashnaktsutyun during a mass in one of New York's churches, called them. "In speeches, lofty words and doctrines of the Gospel were not mentioned. Calls for insurrection instead of fidelity and truth, hatred and revenge instead of humanity, and shame and infamy instead of morality could be heard," Tourian wrote. It is religious communities that have sown hatred and anger towards their neighbours in the hearts of parishioners for decades though, in fact, they have done nothing bad to them. And when the church itself is moving away from its true purpose, there is nothing strange in the fact that its ministers are engaged in not so pious deeds.
Perhaps this is the main reason for the crisis in the Armenian Apostolic Church.