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Hayastan: the Armenian Land of Pilgrimages!
As the plane carrying HH Pope John-Paul II touched down at Zvartnots airport in Armenia last Tuesday, one of the bishops commented that this was the first visit ever by a Pope of the Roman Catholic Church to this biblical land...

30 September 2001   |   Armenian Issues   |   Subject  Armenia

... Indeed, those two Christian states [the Vatican and Armenia] had not yet confirmed their burgeoning relations with a visit to Yerevan by any Bishop of Rome - who is also the pastor of the universal Catholic Church. Although Pope John-Paul II had tried twice to visit Holy Etchmiadzin (the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church), his health as much as that of the former Armenian spiritual leader Catholicos Karekin I had led to a cancellation of both visits.

The Pope spent three days in Armenia. He prayed at Holy Etchmiadzin with HH Catholicos Karekin II, his spiritual host and Catholicos of All Armenians. He visited the Tsitsernagaberd memorial where he laid a wreath in memory of the1 . 5million Armenians who lost their lives during the Genocide of1915 . He visited Khor Virap where St Gregory the Enlightener was imprisoned for many years before being released and helping Armenia adopt Christianity as its national religion in 301 AD. He participated in an Ecumenical Gathering with Catholicos Karekin II where he re-affirmed the need for further advances in inter-church relations across the globe. He celebrated an open-air mass attended by large numbers of Armenian Catholic men and women who had come to greet ‘Il Papa’! And finally, he and his spiritual host co-signed a declaration acknowledging the centrality of the Christian faith for Armenians, the need to advance ecumenical relations and the suffering Armenians underwent during the genocide.

But what else can one say about this visit once the theatrics, protocols and personal relations are set aside? What were some of the impressions it left with me as an Armenian layperson? How did I react to this visit in the heartland of Armenia – the symbolic homeland of all Armenians? Does it compare with the previous Papal visits?

There is little doubt that this visit bore a poignant significance for me. After all, I was welcoming the Pope in Armenia itself! My sense of national belonging could not be sidestepped easily despite the fact that this country has never been a national home for me! Further, I felt a stirring of joy in knowing that this frail Pope, despite his age and infirmities, had managed to fulfil his wish to pray in a land that has suffered consistently for its faith over the years.

However, if I wanted to be honest with myself, I would say that this pilgrimage did not sate many of my own expectations. In fact, the whole chapter was a thought-provoking and surreal experience! By welcoming the Pope and becoming involved in some modest way in his programme, I also discovered Armenia. And my discovery was painful at times, uplifting at others. In an almost Kafkaesque setting, I was torn between joy and disappointment.

Therefore, I would like to depart from my usual format today and blend instead my own personal impressions about Armenia with my observations about the Papal visit.

  • The first thing that struck me about this ten-year old independent republic is the extreme level of poverty and economic deprivation. I was aware to some extent of the dire needs of the Armenian people, but I had never imagined coming face-to-face with such hardships. It is true that Armenia might compare well with some other former Soviet republics, but I have hardly ever adhered to the principle of comparing myself with those worse off than myself. With70 % unemployment, industrial stagnation, and incomes bordering on the risible by most Western and non-Western standards, the people here are going through a rough patch. No wonder that the population of Armenia has shrunk to well under two million inhabitants.
  • The second thing that struck me is that the historical cohesion between Armenians within the society is fracturing away at an alarming rate. There is an elite class - the ‘nouveaux hays’ as they are described here - who constitute a conglomerate of wealthy families with the financial wherewithal to engineer their way easily through life. But there are also two other sectors within society. One sector is the ‘Hay’ (or Armenian) sector of men and women born and raised in the country. The other is the ‘Karabagh’ (or expatriate) sector, which consists of those from the enclave of Nagorny-Karabagh who are now living in this country. At a time of economic duress, one can spot the benign tensions between those two sectors. Those tensions could surface quite quickly and be exacerbated further in the future if proper care is not taken to manage them.
  • Over and above those classifications, society as a whole consists of three poles - the State and its institutions, the Church and its bishops, and the people. Sadly, there is little osmosis between those three bodies, and it often felt to me - listening to many people - that those three poles are engaged in internecine squabbles. The people distrust totally their politicians. Yet, they do not believe in the Church either and scores of men and women have simply lost most of the keywords of their Christian faith.
  • One consequence of this tripolar polarisation can be felt keenly from the tensions between the government on the one hand and the church on the other. But what became even more obvious to me was the disinterest of most Armenians with the Pope’s visit. This is not due to any dogmatic convictions – nor is it due to a lack of curiosity since many people across the world follow the Pope during his visits out of some folkloric interest. Rather, it was due largely to the fact that the crippling economic conditions under which most Armenians survive today does not ignite in them an interest in anything other than earning a living and paying the bills. Papal callisthenics - such as flag-waving or collective chanting - are esoteric pastimes for a suffering and tired people who are not being encouraged out of their human recession.
  • The Armenian Apostolic Church in Armenia further exhibited its traditional Orthodox reserve and suspicion about the visit of the Pope. It felt to me that some bishops welcomed the Pope in a begrudging manner. The Orthodox seminola (as Jayston describes it in his book ‘Two Lungs, No Breath!’) that translates itself into caution and doubt about Catholicism landing upon Orthodoxy became visible. Granted, the hospitality accorded to the Pope was impeccable, but the brotherly warmth that associates itself with such visits was largely - and lamentably - absent in terms of its charisma as much as its portent on the people themselves.
  • The State was also behaving like a bunch of Soviet-style apparatchiks! The security measures that were put in motion during this pilgrimage were not merely stringent. They went overboard and translated themselves into bullying tactics of the power-ful imposing their will upon the power-less! Ordinary people were refrained by the police from coming into close proximity with the Pope. Journalists - those few who had opted to come here rather that join their colleagues in Afghanistan - were not allowed to cover this event properly. One incident stands out in terms of a missed opportunity in public relations! Charles Aznavour sang the ‘Ave Maria’ at the Genocide Memorial in Tsitsernagaberd. Instead of allowing all the journalists to access the site, record this event and place Armenia by proxy in all the headlines, most were kept away!
  • But this pilgrimage also made me realise more clearly that there are different Armenian attitudes to the genocide of 1915 - attitudes that separate those Armenians from within the republic with those in the Diaspora. Armenians here consider this human aberration as one reality - amongst many others - that needs to be duly and justly tackled in time. But for Armenians living elsewhere in the world, it is the main focus of their whole identity. Remove the genocide from their collective psyche, and Armenians in the Diaspora simply lose their nexus with the motherland. This is perhaps one reason why Armenians from within have a more pragmatic attitude toward Turkey - and the genocide - than do those from the outside.
  • But I realise now - rather naively - that Armenians living here exhibit a fundamental difference from those in the Diaspora. With a few major exceptions, those living abroad come to Armenia on a ‘romantic’ journey that will put them back in touch with their roots. But two weeks later, after they have dispensed their explanations and criticisms, they take the plane to go back ‘home’. Whereas Armenians residing here have to put up with living conditions that are far from being dream-like. Theirs is a reality with mixed ingredients - and today, much of it is painful and challenging. In that sense, is it any wonder that some Armenians from the Diaspora who come here and behave in a patronising manner are disliked intensely?

So, am I a prophet of doom and gloom? No! Far from it! There were a number of redeeming stations that brought back to me the real essence of my trip to Armenia. Visiting places like Keghart or Khor Virap, I almost ‘touched’ the mystical or religious fervour of the Armenian people of some decades past. In Karni, I was awestruck by the beauty of the hills and mountains. Stopping the car during one excursion to spend time with an Armenian family in Voghchaberd, I was choked with emotion when they brought out the ‘lavash’ [thin bread that is baked in a pit], white cheese with chives and yoghurt. Although we probably sat there and consumed their meagre daily ration, the wrinkles on the wizened face of the ‘pater familias’ radiated hospitality, kindness and wisdom. It was a rare privilege for me to break bread with this remarkable man and his family.

But such redolent reminiscences are not enough for the future! What this country needs in order to warp itself away from a Soviet-style way of living that it sometimes recalls with nostalgia is new blood. Yes, new blood and new generations! The old is visibly tired! The old is openly power-hungry and corrupt! The old is unerringly anachronistic and painfully breathless! In one word, much of the old must make place for the new. The future of this country - bursting with potential but unable to harness its resources - depends on those young men and women who have made it a point to ‘tough it out’ here rather that choose the easier emigrant wave out of the country. I cannot but think of the likes of Anahid at the Foreign Ministry who is determined to stay put and use her skills in order to improve the future of her country. I cannot but think also of Father Vahram whose strong but down-to-earth faith is almost singularly out of place in this patch of land that straddles post-communism with pre-capitalism.

But new blood also needs some assistance. I hope the Church – hierarchical and patriarchical to the last - would introduce a sense of faith-centred renewal into its own witness so that it ceases from being a vapid institutional reality and becomes instead relevant to the people - a true shepherd to an errant flock. Then, the pews might be less empty and the rich faith of 1700years that we celebrated this week with so many religious leaders the world over could become a truly living one. I also hope that the state institutions would dedicate themselves more proactively to the interest of their people at this critical time rather than focusing their largesse so freely upon themselves. Put succinctly, I would wish this country to connect with itself again.

The pilgrimage of the Pope here did not impact greatly the ecumenical relations between the Armenian and Catholic Churches. After all, those relations are convivial albeit polite. What it did to me, however, is that it brought the uncompromising and resilient faith of the Pope to a country that - like many other countries today - has lost its resilience and has compromised with its own values. Armenia needs to re-awaken itself from its uncertain slumber.

Watching the determination of a Pope who is physically infirm but mentally lucid, I envied him for his strength! And to paraphrase Jayston, I hope that his visit will contribute toward filling those two lungs of Christianity with fresh breath. That will be good for Hayastan / Armenia as a whole - its people, clergy and politicians alike – as much as it will be for the millions of Armenians living in different parts of the world.

When I first arrived to Armenia last week, I shared my mixed feelings about this country with an Austrian television journalist friend of mine. She reassured me that this was quite normal! After all, she stated, I was like a ‘son’ returning to his ‘mother’ - and like any son, my expectations were far too high! She advised me that it would take some time for me to re-adjust my focus. And she was right! Those few days here have de-mystified Armenia for me. And if I were to lanker the words of Romirez Guaridez out of their strict context, I would also add that Armenia has been de-theologised and de-politicised for me.

And I am much the happier for it ..!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   Armenian Issues   |   30 September 2001


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