Celebrating the first Christian nation

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Celebrating the first Christian nation The spiritual leader of the world-wide Armenian Church By George Watts IF YOU happen to walk along Iverna Gardens, a quiet street in Kensington, London, you will come across a very unusual small, square, church built of white stone. This is the Church of St Sarkis, home to members of the oldest Christian nation in the world, Armenia.

Situated between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, Armenia declared Christianity the state religion in 301 after St Gregory the Illuminator converted King Trdat III. The Armenian Church split with mainstream Christendom in 451 when it disagreed with the Council of Chalcedon’s declaration that Christ had two natures, human and divine.

Most Armenians belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, known as one of the ancient churches of the East, which are distinct from the Orthodox churches. Three of the quarters in the old city of Jerusalem represent the great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The fourth quarter is home to the Armenians.

The first Armenians to arrive in Britain settled in Manchester in the 19th century. A mixture of textile traders, small manufacturers and retailers, in 1870 they built the first Armenian church in Britain. Today, there are an estimated 12,000 Armenians in Britain, concentrated mainly in London. Apart from St Sarkis, the capital’s Armenians also worship in nearby St Yeghiche, a former Anglican church.

Last month, Catholicos Karekin II, the spiritual head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, visited Britain. His itinerary included meetings with the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

The ties between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Church of England are very close and go back more than a century, Catholicos Karekin said. “The Archbishop of Canterbury and I spoke about the role of the Church in the world, especially in a world of conflict and on behalf of all people everywhere. We prayed together for better understanding in the world.

“Also, we agreed that the Church of England and the holy see of Etchmiadzin would set up an exchange programme whereby the Church of England would send student clergy to Etchmiadzin. Armenian student priests come to Britain with the help of the Church of England.”

Armenia achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. After 70 years of Communist rule, he continued, the Church has to meet a number of major challenges. “We need Christian re-education and we must build more churches and rehabilitate existing churches. And we need more priests. We need about 2,000 worldwide, but we are graduating only about 50 each year. We hope soon to double that, and towards that end we are expanding the seminary in Sevan and we are building a new seminary in Gyumri, north of the capital Yerevan.”

Young people, said Catholicos Karekin, are flocking to the Church. “I am very pleased with the interest that our young people are showing in the Church. We have set up seven youth organisations, which attract about 5,000 young people each week. These included sports and traditional Armenian music and folk dancing classes. Also, the history of the Armenian Church is now being taught in all schools.”

However, he accused what he calls “born-again sects” of destroying the traditional Armenian family. “These are mostly American-orientated, and include the charismatics, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons. Because Armenia is a poor country, due to the combination of the effects of the 1988 earthquake, the war with Azerbaijan, and the damaging blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan, these wealthier sects have created a situation whereby faith is a buyable and sellable commodity. They are offering food and materials in exchange for abandoning the Armenian Church and becoming one of their followers. It hurts me to say that some Armenian families realise that their faith is saleable.”

Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian, Primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Great Britain, admitted that the Armenian Church in Britain faces the same problems as other churches in attracting young people. Thus the K Tahta Armenian Community Sunday School in Acton, West London, plays an important part in trying to encourage young Armenians to value and understand both their faith and their culture.

“The school is the only place where young people can learn about their national identity. There are classes in the catechism, Armenian language, history and music. We are not nationalists but we love our nation and our culture,” said Bishop Hovhannisian.

Armenians claim that 1.5 million of their people were killed and 600,000 deported in 1915 by the Ottoman Turks. They condemn the deaths as organised genocide. But the issue remains controversial because the Turkish Government has always denied that what happened qualifies as genocide. It maintains that the deaths were precipitated by the outbreak of war and were justifiable as a military reaction to Armenian insurrection.

“The issue of the genocide is very important for Armenians. It’s a moral issue first of all rather than a political issue. Any genocide that is not recognised can lead to further genocides. The Armenian genocide is important for all mankind, not just the Armenians. On April 24 each year we commemorate all the victims. I hope that one day all nations will recognise the genocide,” Bishop Hovhannisian concluded.