As Armenia celebrates the 1,700th anniversary of Christianity as a national religion, the country's spiritual leader has said that his church faces major challenges as it seeks to rebuild its life in a newly independent state.

Speaking in Geneva February 28, Catholicos Karekin II of the Armenian Apostolic Church told staff of the World Council of Churches that the traditional bond between the Armenian people and his church had helped to preserve Christianity during 70 years of Soviet Communism.

But he had harsh words for "new missionaries" who had arrived in Armenia since the collapse of Communism, saying that they had come to his country to divide his church, undermine traditional faith and "confuse the people," more than 90 percent of whom, the Catholicos said, are members of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

This year marks a major celebration for the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the world's most ancient Christian communities, since in A.D. 301 Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion.

Catholicos Karekin's remarks reflect widespread concern among Orthodox church leaders in the former Soviet Union about the activities of some Evangelical groups, and in some cases, the Catholic Church, in the region. The Orthodox consider the presence of foreign churches as "proselytism"—the seeking of converts from within established church communities.

Speaking without notes and through interpreters, Catholicos Karekin was at pains to emphasize the commitment of his church to ecumenism. He stressed that the Armenian Apostolic Church had "brotherly relations with traditional churches like the Catholic Church and Evangelical churches."

However, he rejected suggestions that his church's criticism of what he described ...

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