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Columbus Dispatch (Ohio) October 21, 2005 Friday, Home Final Edition

ETERNAL GIFT A local Armenian congregation's version of a thank-you present stands 6 feet tall, weighs a half-ton and evokes memories of friends and families back home.

St. James Episcopal Church recently received the gift, a khachkar, or stone monument, from the Armenian Church of Columbus for allowing the mission parish to use St. James' building in Clintonville.

>>From the intersection of Oakland Park Avenue and Calumet Street, the dark red rectangular object looks like a side entrance to St. James.

But a short walk south across the manicured lawn reveals a carved monument that's separate from the building and is accentuated by neatly arranged stones and flowers.

Eventually the khachkar, which sits on a granite base, will become the focal point of a meditation court. It will complement two other such areas: one in front of the building, with a Celtic cross and columbarium, and another behind, with a birdbath and statue of St.

Francis of Assisi.

"We were all so struck by it, how similar it (the khachkar) was to the Celtic high cross -- that different religions all shared the same symbol," said Margaret Tchobanian, a member of St. James who is secretary of the Armenian parish.

For the Armenian Church of Columbus, which has worshipped the past eight years at St. James, the khachkar serves not only as a bridge between cultures but also as a portal to ancient traditions.

Khachkars, which date to the fifth millennium B.C., abound in Armenia, where they are used in celebrations and as memorials to the dead.

The Armenian Church, regarded as the oldest state-sponsored Christian denomination, has used them as religious symbols throughout most of its history, which dates to 301.

On Saturday, the local Armenian Church held a day of ceremonies highlighted by the blessing of the khachkar.

Because the mission parish is too small to support its own priest, it called on the Very Rev. Simeon Odabashian of Rhode Island to celebrate Saturday's Divine Liturgy, or Surp Badarak. He had served the Columbus mission from 1993 to 1999 when he was the priest at St.

Gregory of Narek in Cleveland.

Since Odabashian's move to Providence, the Rev. Sahak Kaishian has commuted monthly from Milwaukee to lead the Columbus services.

After Saturday's indoor service, about 70 Armenians and a handful of St. James' members formed a procession outdoors for the blessing of the monument.

As with other worship services in the Armenian Church, most of the blessing was chanted in that language.

The Rev. Bob Goodrich, who was rector at St. James in 1997, when the Armenian Church moved there from St. John's Episcopal in Worthington, took part in the service, as did the Rev. Bridget Tierney, interim rector, and Deacon Serop Demirjian of St. Gregory in Cleveland, along with a host of young acolytes.

Special prayers were offered for Dr. Melkon Hajinazarian and his wife, Siran, who donated the khachkar in memory of their families.

At a reception after the blessing, Tierney thanked the Armenians for the gift and their presence.

"This is sacred space, this is holy space, this is God's space," she said. "We worship, sing and pray in a little different way, in different languages, but all to the same God."

Audience members didn't need to understand Armenian to grasp Sos Manukyan's passionate poetry recitation of Danteakan, which compares the hellish torture of Dante's Inferno to the deaths of many of his countrymen in 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Armenians call the event the deliberate genocide of more than a million people; Turks say it was an unintended consequence of ethnic strife amid the chaos of World War I.

Survivors dispersed to many parts of the world.

The Columbus mission comprises members not only from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia from the former Soviet Union, but also Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Syria, Tchobanian said. She and her husband, Ohannes, who is Armenian, helped organize Saturday's event.

The Armenian congregation's growth from 50 families to about 260 families from Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton has come about largely by word of mouth.

Svetlana Aghabekian of Dublin said that her daughter learned about the Armenian congregation at an international club meeting at Sawmill Middle School, which she attends.

Aghabekian treasures the khachkar area because it provides a place for people to pray for their dead.

Like others, she predicts a bright future.

"I think this is just the beginning of a place that's bigger, stronger, with more people," Aghabekian said.