Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Armenian Apostolic Church: Continuity and Change

Specials- Armenian population
People hold portraits of Armenian intellectuals – who were detained and deported in 1915 – during a rally on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul on April 24, 2018, held to commemorate the anniversary of the mass killing of Armenians. Photo AFP

In 2015 many places around the world, particularly cities with big Armenian population marked the 100th anniversary of the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire. What happened in 1915 is not only a matter of historical debate but a contentious political issue which is still extremely sensitive. The Armenians along some other western countries recognize that dark episode as a genocide while the modern Turkish republic which is the successor of the Ottoman Empire vehemently denies it.

Since 1922 for decades Armenia was part of the Soviet Union and when it gained its independence in 1991, the country witnessed another bloody conflict with Azerbaijan over the mainly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region. Although in 2009 Armenia and Turkey agreed on a provisional roadmap for normalizing diplomatic ties, dispute over history is still constituting a major challenge. In addition to the early 20th-century history which plays a very important role in the national a narrative of Armenia, The Armenian Apostolic Church is regarded as the guardian of Armenian national identity and continues to be a very important aspect of the Arminian national narrative.

The Armenian Apostolic Church was founded in the 1st century AD, and in 301 AD became the first branch of Christianity to become a state religion. This Church is completely autonomous from other Christian Churches of the world.

According to their own traditional narratives, the founder and the first head of the Armenian Apostolic Church was Gregory the Illuminator, the son of Anag who murdered Armenia’s King Khosrov II. Gregory’s father was executed for his crime, but Gregory was able to escape to Cappadocia, where he was raised and taught by bishop St. Firmilian.

When Gregory returned to Armenia, he aimed to convert the Armenian king and the people of his homeland to Christianity, but King Tiridates III, son of the murdered King Khosrov II, did not welcome him and imprisoned Gregory. After thirteen years of incarceration, Gregory finally managed to convert the King Tiridates into Christianity.Therefore, in 301 AD, Tiridates III officially made Christianity the religion of the state.

Specials- Christian armenian
A member of the Armenian community of Jerusalem lights a candle during a ceremony at the Armenian Saint James Cathedral in Jerusalem’s Old City, to commemorate the anniversary of the mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Photo AFP

Today Armenia is a small country in south-west Asia with a population of only 3 million people, around 95% of its population are Christian. In terms of belief and practice, there is a close link between the Eastern Orthodox and the Armenian Church. The faith, doctrine, and dogma are based on the Apostolic teachings, and what its followers regard as Holy Tradition, and the written Word of God. The Virgin Mary is venerated as the Mother of God and both Armenian and non-Armenian saints are celebrated throughout the year. There are seven sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, Confession; Marriage, Chrismation, Holy Orders; and Anointing of the Sick.

In 506 the Armenian church overruled the verdict of the Council of Chalcedon that the Christ had dual natures, one divine, and one human. Armenian Apostolic Church rejected monophysitism and endorsed a doctrinal position recognized as Miaphysitism, which suggests that both divinity and humanity are equally present within a single nature in the Christ.

Like other Orthodox churches, Arminian Christians do not celebrate Christmas in December. Celebrating Christmas in December was primarily a Roman tradition emerged during the fourth century which was not endorsed by The Armenian Apostolic Church. For the Arminian Christians, there are five major celebrations during the year: Nativity and Theophany (Jan 6), Easter, Transfiguration, Assumption of Mary, and Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Indeed, the Church has much in common both with the Latin Rite and the Eastern Orthodox Church. For example, Armenian bishops wear mitres which is very similar to those of Western bishops. Armenian priests below the rank of Very Reverend are permitted to marry before ordination and their children’s cognomens are prefixed with the prefix “Der”, meaning “Lord”, to indicate their lineage.

Since 1923, the church has not used the traditional Armenian calendar and has opted by the Gregorian Calendar shared by most civil authorities and Western Christian churches.

Since late 20th century together with other Oriental Orthodox churches, the Armenian Apostolic Church is taking an active part in religious dialogues with both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in order to resolve doctrinal differences dating back to the Council of Chalcedon. They have been able to resolve many of these historical differences.

Outside Armenia there are notable Armenian Apostolic congregations in various countries in Europe, North America, South America, and South Asia. One of the most important one is the Armenian Apostolic Church of Iran.

Although the majority of Armenians in Armenia follow the Armenian Apostolic Church, there are other active brunches of Christianity in the country. For example, the Armenian Catholic Church which is one of the Eastern particular churches sui iuris of the Catholic Church has a small constituency in the country. Although the Catholics form a small minority community, the influence of the Armenian Catholic Church goes beyond Armenia. It is particularly strong among the diaspora communities in Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, France, U.S.A., Canada, Argentina, Uruguay, Australia. There is a relatively large Arminian population living in north America and out 1.5 million Armenians who live there, 35,000 belong to the Armenian Catholic Church. The Catholic majority France also holds a large Catholic Armenian community. Around 30000 Catholic Armenians live in France today which is the largest of its kind in western Europe.

There is also a very small population of Armenian Christians who adhere to Protestantism, this is mainly the result of American Protestant missionaries proselytising in the country since the downfall of USSR. The 2011 census counted 29,280 Protestant Evangelicals living in the country, despite the fact they only constitute 1% of the population Evangelicalism is a growing form of Christianity in Armenia.