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Does a New Armenia Need a New Patriarch Too?
No matter whether I bat for one side or the other of this argument, I am sure that someone will be quite unhappy. After all, this is the nature of church politics. It is often more arcane - Byzantine springs to mind - than worldly politics. So perhaps it is best if I simply wade in at my own risk with a few personal thoughts and reflections!

13 July 2018   |   Armenian Issues   |   Subject  The Armenian Genocide

Those who follow events in Armenia, or simply read some of my articles, will have noticed that a “velvet revolution” took place in Armenia in mid-April amidst popular protests that lasted some two weeks. Having gained its independence from the crumbling USSR in 1991, the Republic of Armenia has since then witnessed a number of presidents and prime ministers. And in the process, the levels of corruption have reached alarming levels as oligarchs controlled the resources and riches of this small nation. This endemic corruption, that often goes hand-in-hand with autocracies, is nothing new for the Southern Caucasus just as it is not new for many other parts of the world.

However, less than 3 months ago, the Armenian people were led into a revolution that removed a prime minister, re-arranged the chairs of government, and will hopefully not only tackle the serious social and economic ills of the country but also provide leadership and stanch the emigrant flow. With a new prime minister - Nikol Pashinyan - and a fresh president - Armen Sarkissian - one remains hopeful that the country will re-energise itself and clean up its act.

However, parallel to this velvet revolution, another movement has been taking place. This one does not address the temporal institutions of this Christian nation but rather focuses on its spiritual heart. The spiritual leader of the Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church since October 1999 has been Catholicos Karekin II. And whilst there were high hopes upon his election that he would exercise his native familiarity of the Church and country for the welfare of the faithful, there have been persistent rumours about his ethics, finances and architectural projects.

So whilst many Diaspora Armenians supported him upon his election some 17 years ago, things have deteriorated considerably since then as an increasing number of Armenians have become disenchanted with his leadership of the Church. Many protests have circulated against Karekin II but they never really made a big dent. Until now perhaps.

Following the velvet revolution that saw the overthrow of the old regime in Yerevan, a new movement was created calling for a new leader to head the Church. This movement is led by an indefinable number of clergy and laity, and their campaign is not focusing so much on the much-known issues as on the fact that the Armenian Church has drifted away from its strict orthodoxy. In other words, it is becoming too ecumenical and too liberal and too permissive. It is not strict enough like the Russian, Greek or even Coptic Churches in terms of an austere application of beliefs and dogmas. So how can one respond to this accusation? And is it really an accusation or is it merely an excuse to change leaders and satisfy other political agendas? In short, has the Armenian Church lost its compass and so its direction?

For those who know me, it is an open secret that my favourite modern-day Armenian Church leader was Catholicos Karekin I. He was not everyone’s favourite leader either, mind you, but he certainly had an ecumenical flair that had no equal in my eyes. His exquisite and gentle manner, theological brilliance and tireless presence at ecumenical gatherings made him a unique figure. And the familiar twinkle in his eye when he challenged ossified practices made him in my mind the person who represented the forward-looking and organic outreach of the Armenian Church.

Back to the present though! Recently, there was a demonstration (splashed all over the web-pages of Facebook) against the incumbent spiritual leader. It attracted a number of clergy and laity who walked into the church premises at Etchmiadzin (some 20 minutes away from the capital Yerevan) and demanded the departure of Karekin II. They accused him of being too lax with the teachings of the Armenian Church, and also of watering down its traditions.

Much as I am not the equivalent of a Swiss Guard for the present leader (neither hot nor cold is one way I put it!) and do admit that the church has serious internal issues of collegiality versus one-man rule, I believe that this dogmatism that excludes others is unacceptable for most Christian faithful today. From Pope Francis in Rome to Pope Tawadros in Alexandria, there is a rising ecumenical leaven that cannot be denied - and must not be deflated either.

Commenting on the claims and demands of the group of demonstrators in Armenia against their Church leadership, the Armenian parish priest in the UK - his name is Der Shnork - wrote a message in Armenian on his Facebook page – whose rough and summary translation I reproduce hereunder:

The "New Armenia New Patriarch" movement is doomed to be a failure. Their thoughts and ideas, with their extreme variations, are incompatible with the liberal spirit of our people and of our Church. What does it mean to say that we need a Catholicos who prays, and who said that our Patriarch does not pray? There has never been an interrogation in our church, let alone on the person of the Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians.

Prayers are neither demonstrations nor shows; belief is not measured by the length of someone’s beard. I'm sorry to say but it seems that Father Koryun with his lengthy and most impressive beard is suffering from megalomania of an extreme form of Orthodoxia. He reminds us of a number of Russian and Greek extremist monks. This phenomenon is very dangerous, contrary to the spirit of the Armenian Apostolic Church and should be rejected. Their place is in mediaeval type of monasteries, and they should not interfere in Church affairs.

Is Fr Shnork being a tad too sharp when he talks about the length of beards and the rigorous application of “Orthodoxy” in faith matters? Not really! If we look at the Armenian Church, we should first and foremost recall that it suffered inordinately during the genocide against Armenians - alongside Assyrians and Pontic Greeks - by Ottoman Turkey during WWI. As such, this sense of martyrdom has made the Church not only an exercise in divinity but also one in humanity and thereby of conviviality. Besides, I truly believe that a Church that does not include the neighbour is not one that can claim to reach out to Christ either. So a movement such as “New Armenia-New Patriarch” reeks of political control and does not exhibit a genuine desire to broaden its outreach. If the current leadership is far too flawed and sorely lacks a sense of moral leadership, the answer cannot be addressed with a return to a stringent fundamentalism in the Church but rather by reaching out to others and evincing a genuine willingness toward self-examination as well as transparency that is equivalent to the three-year ministry of Jesus Christ Himself.

So what are those protestors doing in my opinion?

They are capitalising on the already low public opinion let alone apathy of the population about the church and its clergy. So by connecting current political changes with past corruptions, they assume the mantle of reformers. They also claim to be more orthodox than the church, and they plant conspiracy theories hither and thither, whilst they frame ecumenical openness as a conspiracy to dilute the teachings of the church.

What is required is a measure of self-examination by everyone. Such self-examination - almost Socratic in nature - means that the leadership should make itself accountable for its good stewardship and good governance, in a way that many churches - including the Armenian Orthodox - still lack today. However, it also means that this is not necessarily done with diktats and slogans or even long beards or fiery sermons and bombastic words but by an acknowledgement that the other is also born in the image and likeness of God. S/he simply cannot be dismissed with harsh words, insulated attitudes or sclerotic viewpoints that ostensibly safeguard the “purity” (read orthodoxy) of the faith.

If such an acknowledgement is applied by our Church, one that stretches out toward others, everything else could become an apostrophe. Otherwise, the Church - in its universal sense - could well become an apostrophe itself.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   Armenian Issues   |   13 July 2018


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