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Armenian Prelate Issues Appeal to Preserve Culture

June 23, 1988|ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writer

His Holiness Karekin II, the highest spiritual leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church outside of Soviet Armenia, visited the Glendale-area Armenian community Monday and stressed the importance of preserving Armenian ethnic life styles.

In the first Glendale-area appearance of a monthlong pontifical visit to Los Angeles, Karekin II also called for the reunification of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh with Soviet Armenia. The territory is in the Azerbaijan Republic.

Karekin II made his remarks during a visit to the Chamlian Armenian Elementary School in La Crescenta.

The spiritual leader, whose official title is Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, arrived in Los Angeles last week. His jurisdiction, based in Lebanon, is one of two segments of the Armenian church, which has been divided since the early 20th Century.

Karekin II is considered the leader of Diaspora Armenians, while the other leader of the Armenian church, Vazken I, based in Soviet Armenia, is considered the primary leader for Armenians worldwide.

The visit by Karekin II, revered by Armenians in much the same way as the Pope is revered by Catholics, was one of a number of visits to Armenian schools in Southern California. The Oxford-educated pontiff is scheduled to make more than 40 appearances at various institutions during his stay in Southern California before traveling to San Francisco.

Rapport With Children

"As I look into your eyes, I see the future," Karekin II said to a rapt audience of more than 400 first-graders through ninth-graders at the private school. "When I look into the eyes of the elderly people, I see the past. The past and the future belong to the whole nation. But it is the present that we have to make work together."

Dressed in flowing black silk robes and wearing heavy gold cross pendants, Karekin II and his bishops made an imposing sight. But, speaking in Armenian before switching to English, he seemed to the children who laughed at his jokes to be speaking their own special language.

"He opens up to kids; he knows what we're all about," 10-year old Alisa Kazazian said. "He talks to us like he's our friend."

It is estimated that there are 300,000 Armenians living in Southern California, most in Los Angeles County, about half of whom are estimated to belong to Karekin II's jurisdiction, the See of Cilicia. Most Armenians in Glendale, overwhelmingly from Middle Eastern countries, belong to that branch of the Armenian church.

In fact, so few Soviet Armenians live in Glendale that Vazken I did not make a single stop in the city during his visit to California last November. "There is a very simple reason," said Harut Sassounian, editor of the California Courier, an Armenian weekly published in Glendale. "The Cilician See has a church in Glendale, while the other See does not."

The Chamlian School is affiliated with St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church, the largest Armenian church in Glendale and one of the parishes that looks to the Cilician branch of the Armenian church for leadership.

Seated in an ornate, raised chair on a Persian rug, Karekin II listened to the school choir sing nationalistic Armenian songs. The chair, which belongs to St. Mary's, is reserved exclusively for Karekin II. There is one such chair in every Armenian church belonging to the Cilician See.

'Renewed Vigor'

Because the Armenian people have had no autonomous state since 1920, the church and its leaders symbolize a homeland as well as a religion, Chamlian school Principal Vartkes Ghazarian said. Thus a large banner that hung from the second floor of the school on Monday read, "Now we have renewed vigor in our quest to regain Karabagh."

It was the pontiff's second visit to the school. On his first, in 1985, he blessed the ground where a new classroom building was to be constructed. Three years later, the building remains incomplete. Karekin told students their teachers were working to see that it is finished by Christmas.

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