In his first pontifical visit to the United States, the highest-ranking primate in the Armenian Apostolic Church arrived Thursday in Los Angeles with a mixed message of hope and hardship from his economically depressed country.
The five-day pastoral visit of His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, comes as the church celebrates the 1,700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia. Armenia was the first nation to make Christianity the state religion.
The church and the nation have fallen on hard economic times, and Karekin's visit to Southern California, which has the largest Armenian population outside the old country, is intended to strengthen ties with the Armenian diaspora.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the newly independent Armenian economy has been shaky, with high unemployment that has forced many Armenians to leave. Of the nearly 3.7 million living in the country at the time of independence, an estimated 1 million have emigrated, mostly to Russia, Europe and Southern California. There are an estimated 800,000 Armenians in Southern California.
Karekin said Thursday that the situation remains "very difficult" in Armenia. But he said fewer people are leaving. "The condition is more stable. People have more of a positive outlook toward the future," he said.
His cautiously upbeat view contrasted with a statement two weeks ago by Gevorg Poghosyan, head of the Armenian Sociological Assn., who said that despite $1.4 billion in U.S. aid over the last 10 years and the Armenian government's attempts to promote commerce and investments, 80% of the country's people live in poverty on less than $25 a month.
Karekin said the church has begun building new churches and reevangelizing the population now that religious freedom has been restored. Christian education, he said, is once again available and the church is attempting to make it mandatory in public schools.
Karekin's visit comes on the heels of a visit to Los Angeles last October of another Armenian catholicos, His Holiness Aram I, who is based in Beirut. After Armenia fell under the control of the Soviet Union, the loyalties of Armenians living outside Armenia were divided. Some remained loyal to the mother church in Armenia, now headed by Karekin. Others, fearing communist domination of the church, switched their loyalty to the catholicos in Beirut, whose see (headquarters) is about 500 years old, compared with the 1,700-year-old see in the Armenian holy city of Echmiadzin.
Aram said last October there has been no talk of reunification or changing the fact that in the United States there are two Armenian archbishops, although he called for cooperation.
Karekin emphasized Thursday that in the chain of command, the Catholicos of All Armenians, the position he now holds, is preeminent.
"There is cooperation between our two sees," Karekin said. "There are certain issues which we have inherited from the past but led by our brotherly love and mutual respect we will be able to overcome the difficulties that we're encountering."
Karekin's Los Angeles visit includes a Divine Liturgy at the Hollywood Bowl at 10 a.m. Sunday, followed by a black tie dinner at 5 p.m. at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.