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RELIGION / Exploring issues, answers and beliefs

Armenians Called by 1 Faith, but 2 Churches

Aram I, the leader of one branch, visits Southland to call on congregants to remember their culture and their centuries-old commitment to Christianity.

October 21, 2000|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

After the curtain closed and the music faded at the cavernous Hall of the Crucifixion and Resurrection at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, His Holiness Aram I approached the lectern.

Dressed in traditional black robes and hood, the bearded Armenian catholicos had just listened to a recorded narration of the Crucifixion and Resurrection depicted in a sweeping panoramic painting inside the hall.

The narrator had noted that the Roman Emperor Constantine I had officially recognized the Christian faith and given it preferential treatment--an event that took place in AD 321.

"This is only one side of the coin," Aram said, smiling as he addressed his audience of 650 Armenian young people gathered to hear from the worldwide head of their Armenian Apostolic Church, who is based in Beirut.

"We are the first nation who accepted Christianity as a state religion," he said, referring to Armenia's conversion to Christianity two decades before Rome's.

"We are proud of it. We are proud to be the first nation to open our heart to the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ," he said.

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Aram's principal purpose on his trip to North America, which has taken him to New York, Boston, Washington, Toronto and now California--is to urge Armenians to keep and remember both their faith and their culture. The Forest Lawn narration provided an unintended but cogent example of how difficult that can be for an immigrant church.

Like other religious leaders based overseas, Aram has a geographically spread flock in the United States that can be a source of great spiritual and financial support. But the American church can also be a concern as its congregants assimilate into the American mainstream.

"You are part of American society. You are integrated. But you are Armenian. One cannot live without identity," he told the students. "We have to remain firmly attached to all that makes up our Armenian identities."

In addition to assimilation, however, that religious identity is strained by divisions within the Armenian church.

The church became divided administratively more than 50 years ago as the former Soviet Union, of which Armenia was part, curbed religious freedom. Soviet officials were accused of controlling internal church affairs in Armenia.

As a result, some Armenian Apostolic churches abroad broke with the mother church and switched allegiance to the Lebanon-based See of Cilicia. Others remained loyal to church headquarters in Armenia.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Armenia once again became an independent nation. But the split between the two churches remains--one, headed by Aram, based in Beirut, the other, headed by His Holiness Karekin II, based in the Armenian city of Echmiadzin. Bishop Moushegh Mardirossian heads the diocese here for the Beirut-based church while Archbishop Vatche Hovsepian, primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, gives his allegiance to Karekin.

While the two branches offer the same liturgy and preach the same creed, far more U.S. Armenians are believed to be affiliated with Karekin's Armenia-based church.

The tension between the two was clear during Aram's visit. Hovsepian refused to appear with Aram at any but one of the catholicos' four events here. Even at that event, the welcoming ceremony Wednesday night at St. Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church in Glendale, his appearance was little more than a courtesy, Hovsepian said.

The Beruit-based church can no longer use Communist domination as a reason for a separate administration, Hovsepian said in an interview. Having two different hierarchies "is absolutely against the canon law," Hovsepian said. "This is illegal. There should be one primate and one bishop to a diocese."

Aram, in an interview with The Times, said he agrees that Orthodox governance presupposes only one catholicos, and one bishop in each diocese. "You cannot have two bishops in one place. This is an abnormal situation," Aram said. But the reality of the Armenian diaspora justifies the current situation, he said.

"We don't have a question of 'reunification,' but we have a real concern to strengthen our collaboration," he said. "We do believe that two catholicos within one Armenian church--which is due to historical circumstances--at this point is a must."

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His leadership, he said, is dedicated to serving the Armenian diaspora. By contrast, Karekin must, of necessity, be concerned with serving the church in Armenia, he said.

"We are called to serve one people in different contexts, in different ways," he said.

Aram said relations with Karekin are good. But Hovsepian offered a less upbeat interpretation.

"Unfortunately, our goodwill and good intentions and expectations they took for granted. They are aiming for coexistence, which we are not interested in. They are solidifying their position. Period. It's very unfortunate," Hovsepian said.

But those tensions within the church seemed a secondary concern to many of those who greeted Aram on his visit.

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