The new head of one of the world's most ancient churches, the Armenian Apostolic Church, has declared that his primary task in his new ministry is to help put his church in order as the nation deals with the crisis prompted by the recent assassination of eight leading government officials.

Catholicos Karekin II, who previously led Armenia's largest diocese, Ararat, was elected Catholicos of All Armenians at the National Ecclesiastical Assembly October 27.

On the same day as the election, the country's prime minister, Vazgen Sarkisian, the parliamentary speaker, Karen Demirchian and six other leading officials in Armenia's parliament in Yerevan, were shot dead by a group of terrorists. The killings threw the small former Soviet state of less than three million people into crisis.

In an interview with Ecumenical News International (ENI) at his official residence in Etchmiadzin, about 30 kilometers from the Armenian capital Yerevan, Catholicos Karekin II stressed the commitment of his church to the ecumenical movement and praised cooperation between Christian churches. But he said that the internal life of his own church must, for the time being, take priority.

At the meeting at which Karekin II was elected, the National Ecclesiastical Assembly also called for the drafting of a new constitution and bylaws for the church, which has operated since the start of the 20th century without a canonical constitution. Karekin II believes that this should be one of his main duties.

This is a pressing task, especially as in 2001 the Armenian church will celebrate the 1700th anniversary of the nation's declaration as a Christian state.

Despite the strong financial support the nation receives from the millions of Armenians abroad—mainly in Russia, Europe, North America and the Middle East—this small nation has faced major economic problems since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. An unresolved feud with its neighbor Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Ngorno-Karabakh has aggravated Armenia's problems.

The election of the new Catholicos was of major interest to Armenians both here and abroad. Before the election took place, six of the church's leading bishops protested against "interference" by the Armenian government and the country's president, Robert Kocharian, who supported the man who went on to win the election—Karekin II.

But Karekin told ENI that such events were simply the effects of "pre-election fervor ... We have to show great understanding. The bishops who wrote the letter were motivated by [reacting against] the interference in the internal affairs of the church."

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Although before the election some church members had spoken of a possible church schism because of the government's interference, all six bishops who protested took part in the elections and have duly recognized Karekin II as the elected leader of the church.

One of the six, Archbishop Tiran Kyuregian of Russia, told ENI the matter was "irrelevant" now that the new canonical head of the church had been chosen.

Describing how he saw the role of the church, Karekin II told ENI: "Our church is the national church [of Armenia], committed to the spiritual and social welfare of our people. We share our nation's hardships, sufferings, hopes, and joys alike. The church is the people.

"Everything that concerns the people should concern the church. We have created a nation which holds to Christ and which will always be under the Lord's blessing and praise his glory."

The new millennium, the Catholicos said, was "the best opportunity [for all churches] to renew our faith, to revitalize the life of our churches, to rededicate ourselves to the goal of alleviating the pain and suffering within society and reorganize inter-church relations in the framework of cooperation."

More than 80 percent of Armenians are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which traces its history to the year 301. Armenia was an important power in its own right in ancient times, but for most of its modern history it has been under foreign control. Since its establishment, the church has played a significant role in the identity of the Armenian people.

Catholicos Karekin described to ENI how church life had been "minimized" under Soviet rule, when a "materialism-oriented lifestyle became dominant."

"Today our great challenge is to bring the church back to the very center of the nation's life, where it belongs."

Much was being done, the Catholicos said, to reconstruct old churches and monasteries and also to build new ones. In his former diocese of Ararat, which includes Yerevan, nine churches were being constructed and there were plans for a further five.

"However, the physical presence of the church is not enough," said Karekin II, adding that only by establishing a "thriving community life"—religious education, charitable and social activities—would the church be able "to make our Christian preaching and witness more relevant, and satisfy the spiritual hunger and thirst the Armenian people have today."

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The church was already giving help to orphans, and a grant of between US$3,000 and $5,000 to families who wanted to start small businesses.

But Catholicos Karekin said social programs had to be expanded. He cited the example of three church-run soup kitchens in Yerevan which were now feeding 600 people a day, but which would soon be expanded to feed 2,000 a day.

"What is most important for us now is the Christian education of the people," he added. "For that, we need to prepare teachers, we need to prepare clergy, organize community life."

Armenia's law on religion was amended in 1997 to curb the spread of non-traditional faiths and sects, and was criticized by some minority churches and human rights advocates. The law was in part a reaction to the aftermath of an earthquake which killed 25,000 people in December 1988. This prompted many religious groups to come to Armenia, bringing humanitarian assistance, but many of them also began missionary work here. The new arrivals included evangelical Christians, as well as Jehovah's Witnesses and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

According to Keston News Service, some Jehovah's Witnesses, whose community has not been officially approved by the Armenian authorities, have been imprisoned for their "illegal" activities.

However, Karekin said that the law was "inadequate" and contained many loopholes "from which many sects are benefiting and are engaging in proselytizing."

"The Armenian Church puts forward [makes it a priority] to protect its children from the attacks of sects and aggressive intentions in religious life," Catholicos Karekin told ENI. But he stressed that: "One cannot achieve this goal simply with bans."

The Catholicos recognized that, like national churches in other countries, the Armenian Church also needed to undertake missionary work among its own baptized members, only a small fraction of whom regularly practiced their faith.

"The church has to conduct its own mission and evangelization to teach the faith to its members," Catholicos Karekin said. "The church must be built in the souls of her people. Only in this way can we protect our church and the unity of our people."

Karekin II told ENI that inter-church relations in Armenia had become "calmer" in recent years. "There were cases in the past where traditional Protestant churches were proselytizing in Armenia, but today, thanks be to God, it has more or less settled."

Today, the Catholicos said, his church's relations with Catholic and Protestant churches were "on the whole ... normal," and the level of cooperation with them was "a source of satisfaction."

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But some "extremist evangelical groups," although registered with the Armenian authorities, operated "outside the framework of the law—that is, they are proselytizing, aggressively attacking the Armenian Church and other religious movements.

"Those who confront their Christ the Savior to the Christ the Savior of another church, another confession, do not help Christian faith, but destroy it," the Catholicos said. "In these cases, we have problems."

He stressed, however, that his church was "committed to the ecumenical spirit" and would continue the policies of his predecessor, Catholicos Karekin I, who enjoyed wide respect in the world-wide ecumenical movement.

"Our church is a member church of the World Council of Churches, and we shall take an active part in all its activities and consultations," Karekin II said. "We consider dialogue between different churches very important, because only through understanding each other can we better serve God's people."

He also praised the work of Catholicos Aram I of the Great House of Cilicia—the other principal branch of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Catholicos Aram is a key Orthodox figure in the ecumenical movement and moderator of the World Council of Churches' central committee. (Cilicia is located in the suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon and has extensive influence over the Armenian diaspora.)

Despite Cold War tensions between the two Armenian Apostolic Catholicosates, relations have improved in recent years. Karekin described his relations with Catholicos Aram and the Cilicia Catholicosate as "mutually brotherly and affectionate."

"It is in this spirit that we want to foster future relations and solve all our past differences," Karekin said.

He also told ENI that over the centuries the Armenian Apostolic Church had formed particularly close relations with the Eastern Orthodox Churches. He described, in particular, relations with the Russian Orthodox Church as "exemplary."

(The Armenian Apostolic Church belongs to the Oriental Orthodox family of churches, separated from much of Christianity in the 5th century by a theological dispute.)

"But we also have close ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholic Church," Karekin II said, dismissing accusations of "Romophilia" leveled against his predecessor, Karekin I, and reported last year in the Armenian press as "false and misleading."

"Our ties with all churches are based on the belief in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Christ, and are meant to promote true cooperation," he said.

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But he said he would not renew, at least not for now, his predecessor's invitation to Pope John Paul to visit Armenia, nor did he plan to make any immediate high-profile foreign visits himself because of the "enormous task of reorganization" facing him.

"It is too early to speak about any visits, not only to sister churches, but even to my own dioceses," he said.

Despite his many administrative duties, Karekin II said that, like his predecessor, he saw himself first of all as a pastor. "Every spiritual servant who has knelt before the altar and given the vows of priesthood, is a shepherd," Catholicos Karekin II said. "Without pastoral concerns and commitments, one may become an excellent administrator, a great scholar or an admired thinker, but never a priest of the Lord."

Related Elsewhere

Etchmiadzin, the official Web site of the Armenian Apostolic Church, has information about Karekin II's consecration and ordination ceremony (including images), biographical notes about him and his predecessor, preparations for the church's 1700th anniversary, and pages upon pages of information about the church.