Armenian church marks its 1,700 years of history

Ecumenical ceremony is held in D.C. basilica


WASHINGTON - In the year 301, a pious Christian man in the Kingdom of Armenia was tortured for his faith and thrown into a pit, where he was imprisoned for 13 years.

According to legend, Gregory the Illuminator performed a miracle once he was freed from the pit, curing the insanity of the persecuting king. The king, in turn, experienced a religious conversion and proclaimed Armenia a Christian state -- the first in history.

Once he was freed from the pit, he performed a miraculous cure of the persecuting king, who experienced a religious conversion and in 301 A.D., proclaimed Armenia a Christian state - the first in history.

Some 1,700 years later, the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church that suffered under 70 years of Communist rule is celebrating the anniversary of its homeland's conversion to Christianity as it struggles to re-establish itself amid the growing pains of the independent Republic of Armenia.

In an ecumenical ceremony yesterday rich in pomp at the Roman Catholic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, national religious leaders prayed in thanksgiving for the survival of the church and for the road that lies ahead.

They included Roman Catholic Cardinals William H. Keeler of Baltimore and Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, and the Rev. Robert W. Edgar, secretary general of the National Council of Churches.

"The immense sufferings of the Armenian people, their martyrdom through the centuries, represents an enormous contribution before the Lord to the holiness of God's family," Keeler said to the several hundred who attended.

His Holiness Karekin II, the catholicos or patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, is on a three-week visit to the United States. He wore gold and red vestments over the traditional black-hooded cassock as he told the assembled congregation that "Armenia, the country we come from, is a difficult land."

"We have survived and we are still the little flock of Christ that confronted in the past all those who tried to trample our faith by declaring for us Christianity is not a garment, but the color of our skin, which cannot be altered," he read from a text in English.

Armenia has a history both proud and tragic. It had no written language until the 5th century, when a monk created a 36-letter alphabet so he could translate the Bible into the vernacular, leading to a golden age of classical Armenian literature.

But over the centuries, Armenia has been dominated by a series of rulers, including Persians, Turks and the Soviets. In 1915 began a two-year-long massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks that left 1.5 million dead, a claim disputed by the Turks. In 1988, an earthquake killed 25,000, and a dispute erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over control of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Grinding poverty and high unemployment have led, by some estimates, as many as 1 million of what had been a population of 3.7 million to leave the country.

Through the trying times, past and present, "The church stood as the unifying force for the nation and for the people," Karekin said through an interpreter during an interview yesterday morning.

"After 70 years of nonbelief under the atheistic Soviet regime and after the 1915 genocide, our people spread across the world, and their community and religious life was destroyed," said Karekin, 50, who assumed the title of Catholicos in November 1999, after the death of Karekin I.

The Orthodox church was "tolerated" by the Soviets, Karekin said, but it did suffer some persecution and was hampered in its religious mission. But the Christian faith was planted deep in the souls of Armenians, he said.

"The churches may have been closed, but the church in the soul of each individual was open," he said. "The priests may have been exiled, but each individual worshiped God himself."

Some believe that the church's conduct during the Soviet era was ambiguous. Vigen Guroian, an Armenian Orthodox theologian who teaches at Loyola College in Maryland, noted that although "early on there was severe persecution," some religious leaders cooperated to a certain extent with the Communist regime in Armenia in return for a degree of autonomy.

That suspicion of church complicity led some Armenian parishes abroad to switch their loyalty to an Armenian catholicos who leads the See of Cilicia based in Beirut. That split remains among Armenian churches in America.

Karekin said the greatest challenge facing the church is its lack of resources.

"There is great enthusiasm. But after the Soviet atheistic regime in Armenia, the church doesn't have all the possibilities to adequately answer all the needs of the people who are thirsty for religious nourishment," he said.

For example, there are not enough parishes to employ all the men who want to be priests.

"We don't have a lack of applicants," he said. "We have a lack of resources."

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