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"The strength of the Armenian Church lies in its very real ties with the people"
The opening words of the liturgy drift from the cathedral in Etchmiadzin across the cloister garden where the first green buds of spring are opening in the warm sunshine.
"With ineffably wondrous powers Thou didst create Adam, the lordly image, and didst endue him with gracious glory in the paradise of Eden, the place of delights."
The 4th -century cathedral of Etchmiadzin has been undergoing restoration. Some small sections of scaffolding still in place round the building are the last signs of the extensive renovations carried out in the past few years. Now only a few small finishing touches are needed and the cathedral will shine in all its glory for the official events to mark the 1700th anniversary of the proclamation of Christianity in Armenia, celebrated by the Armenian Apostolic Church this year.
"Through the passion of thy holy Only-begotten all creation has been renewed and man has again been made immortal apparelled in raiment indespoilable."
It is 1700 years since the Armenian King Trdat III (Tiridates) proclaimed Christianity as the country's state religion, making Armenia the oldest Christian nation in the world.
St Gregory the Illuminator
Worse still, 38 Christian virgins who had fled to Armenia to escape persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian, fell into the hands of Trdat III. One of the young women called Hripsime pleased the King "beyond all measure" and he wanted to take her as his wife. Hripsime however refused to become the wife of a heathen king. After being cruelly tortured with the other virgins she was executed. Only St Nino, who was later to convert Georgia to Christianity, escaped. As a punishment for his wicked deeds, the king was struck down with leprosy, followed by madness and the nightmarish vision of himself with a pig's snout growing in the middle of his face. Then his sister Chosroviducht, who had already been converted to Christianity, reminded him of Gregory, still incarcerated. Trdat III pardoned Gregory and Gregory healed the king of his incurable disease through prayer. By this miracle of healing Trdat III was converted, had himself and the whole royal household baptized and, in the year 301, proclaimed Christianity as the state religion of Armenia.
Gregory the Illuminator was consecrated as the first Catholicos of the Armenian church and the cathedral in Etchmidzian, built on the site of a pre-Christian temple in the year 303, dates back to him. Legend has it that Jesus himself chose the spot and directed Gregory to it in a vision, hence the name Etchmiadzin, which means the place where "the Only-begotten One descended".
Celebrations during the Jubilee year
His Holiness Garegin II Nersesyan, who has been Catholicos of the Holy See Etchmiadzin at the birthplace of Armenian Christianity since 1999, says that "The jubilee is important for all Christendom. The Armenian nation was the first nation to raise Christianity to the status of state religion." For Garegin II, this represents not only a great honour, but also a great responsibility vis-à-vis Christianity world-wide. "We are called to contribute what we can at the start of a new millennium," he says, adding that one of the most urgent tasks for the church is "the need to organize the life of mankind according to the commandments of God".
Challenges for the Armenian Apostolic Church
The Armenian Apostolic Church has achieved much in the past ten years. It has trained 1000 teachers in Christian education centres and is vigorously pushing ahead with training for the priesthood. Nevertheless, His Holiness Garegin II is aware that ten years of effort by the church cannot repair all the religious and spiritual sequels of 70 years of restrictive Soviet rule. "We don't have enough teachers of religion, we don't have enough priests and churches. There are still towns where there is no church."
Father Michael, the acting Primate of the Shirak region, draws a similar conclusion: "At present we have four priests for about 360,000 people in this region. With a situation like this it is impossible for us to serve the people as we would like to."
Located in the north-west of the country, Giumri is the central city of the Shirak region and the second-biggest city in Armenia, with some 120,000 inhabitants. It is almost 13 years since an earthquake shook this northern part of Armenia. At 6.9 on the Richter scale, the earthquake that struck Northern Armenia on 7 December 1988 was the most powerful to hit the country in modern times. Official figures at the time spoke of 23,000 dead, but unofficial estimates put the number at 50,000 to 80,000. 500,000 people were made homeless and one quarter of Armenia's industrial capacity was wiped out overnight.
People are still living in the hastily erected huts put up at that time. The shells of ruined buildings rise starkly against the sky and outside the Yot Verq Church (Church of the Seven Stigmata), the two towers that collapsed in the earthquake still bear witness to the tragedy.
The people carry the wounds of the past in their hearts and new wounds are being opened. Giumri has an exceptionally high rate of unemployment and Father Michael is concerned about the number of suicides, and the high level of alcohol and drug abuse and prostitution. "There is no sphere of human existence which does not concern the church," he says. "Every day is a new challenge for us and we don't know what tomorrow will bring." Yet Father Michael is confident. "This is by no means the worst time the Armenian church has been through. Look at our history. Neither persecution nor oppression have succeeded in separating the Armenian people from their church. The strength of the Armenian church lies in its very real ties with the people and its democratic foundations... For their part, the people of Armenia love their church because the Armenian nation owes its survival to the church."
This is why the central theme chosen for the 1700th anniversary celebration is "the light of Christ's teaching shines into every home and every family", says His Holiness Garegin II. Every evening throughout the jubilee year, a large neon cross will shine in the centre of the capital, Yerevan, to remind motorists and passers-by of their Christian heritage.
"The anniversary has also brought unchurched people back into the church," says Garegin II. So the anniversary celebrations will also symbolize the rebirth of the church and the revival of church life following the Soviet era. The dome of the new cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator rising on Yerevan's skyline bears witness to this, as does the fact that the highpoint of the celebrations from 21 to 23 September is planned to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Armenia's independence from the Soviet Union.
A young couple come into the cathedral in Etchmiadzin carrying their new-born baby. On a bench in the cloister garden, an old woman in a headscarf sits in the warmth of the spring sunshine.
"I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall at all times be in my mouth."
The liturgy is over. A priest hurries through the garden with a bunch of crimson carnations in his hand.
"Strip the skin off any Armenian and underneath you will find Christianity," says an old proverb quoted to us by His Holiness Garegin II as we take our leave.
Photos to accompany this feature can be obtained upon request by fax (+41.22) 798 13 46 or on this site.
Information about the anniversary celebrations of the Armenian Apostolic Church can be found on the website of the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin http://www.etchmiadzin.com and of the Catholicosate of Cilicia http://www.cathcil.org
The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.