The Church in Armenia

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From the 25th to the 30th June I was part of a delegation of six bishops from Australia on visit to Armenia. Apart from myself, the bishops represented various Eastern Rites, both Catholic and Orthodox. We were guests of the Catholicos, His Holiness Karekin II, who is the head of the Armenian Orthodox Church and stayed at the central complex of the Armenian Church, the Holy See of Etchmiadzin, a little outside the capital city Yerevan. 

The delegation met with the Catholicos in what was a significant ecumenical opportunity. We also met with the new Prime Minister of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, who had only been in office for one month. We discussed with him the role of the Church in developing a healthy civil society.

We visited a number of monasteries in different parts of the country to learn of the history of the Church in Armenia and to witness its current life. Many monasteries were built in the early centuries of Christianity, destroyed by invading armies, then rebuilt. Even now monasteries are being restored after the harsh Soviet years. Many still lie in ruins. The rich spiritual and architectural heritage has suffered greatly over the centuries. Yet a strong and positive faith inspires the Church to plan for the future.

We met with a number of wonderful bishops and monks. They witnessed to a deep faith, an inner peace and a love for their Christian heritage. There are good numbers of young men entering either the priesthood or monastic life.

We visited the seminary which has 58 students in the first four years of study, a clear sign of the future of the Church.
One very moving experience was to visit the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. We laid a wreath and prayed for the victims. In 1915 the Turkish government undertook a genocide aimed at wiping out all Armenian Christians. Over 1.5 million Christians perished, half of the population of Armenia at the time. The memorial museum documents the progress of the genocide which continued from 1915 to 1922. The experience there was overwhelmingly confronting and sad. One was moved to tears learning of the intense cruelty inflicted on the people because they were Christian.

The Church in Armenia was founded by two apostles, St Thaddeus who worked in Armenia in the years 35-43AD, and St Bartholomew, during the years 44-60AD. As in so many other places, the first Christians experienced times of persecution and many were martyred in the first few centuries. However, with the conversion of the king in 301, Armenia became the first nation to formally embrace Christianity – more than a decade before the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine.

The subsequent history of the Church in Armenia was marked by periods of peace, broken by invasions from the surrounding nations. For most of its history, Armenia has been under foreign rule. At the beginning of the twentieth century it was under the Turks, then enjoyed a brief period of independence following the First World War, and was then assumed into the Soviet Union. It received its independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The current population of Armenia is 3 million, though over 7 million Armenians live abroad as part of the diaspora. Armenia is a Christian country with 98% of the people being Christian, most belonging to the Armenian Orthodox Church.

Our delegation visited Armenia to express Christian solidarity with them. They are a small country with a strong Christian heritage, which has survived despite centuries of domination by foreign powers. Our meetings with key civil and religious leaders provided us with the opportunity to express our support for the aspirations of the society and the Church.

We also offered financial support to a number of charitable projects, including work among refugees and the poor, and a project for disabled children.

We visited the Archbishop, Raphael Minassian, who is the titular Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia for Armenians and Ordinary of the Ordinariate for Catholics of Armenian Rite in Eastern Europe.

Archbishop Minassian cares for some 100,000 Armenians who have joined the Catholic Church. In recent years the bishop has had to support several thousand Syrian refugees who have fled their homeland, feeding them and finding them accommodation. With few resources he has devoted himself to this on a daily basis for several years. His parents as children were both survivors of the genocide. He has no grandparents or other family.

This initiative by the Eastern Rite bishops of Australia has sought to express Christian concern for brethren in the faith who are currently suffering and struggling to survive. For me personally it was an opportunity to be united spiritually with a Church that has known so much suffering, but whose faith has survived and remained strong. There is a quiet determination to live out faithfully their rich Christian heritage.

The lands of the Middle East where the Christian faith was first planted are now under much pressure. In many places they struggle to survive. Yet despite persecution and much suffering, the faith endures, often purified and strengthened.