The Armenian Church spans a historical period of over 1700 years, from the year 301 AD when St Gregory the Enlightener witnessed Armenia become the first nation-state to adopt Christianity as state religion, to the 1600th anniversary of St Mesrop Mashtots who created our Armenian 36-letter alphabet in 406 AD, to the Golden Age for Armenia, and finally to our present times in the third millennium.
The Mother See of the Armenian Church is based at Holy Etchmiadzin in Armenia. It is endowed with several spiritual and administrative bodies representing its authority. From the National Ecclesiastical Assembly to the various Councils and Brotherhoods, it remains one of the primary references for Armenians worldwide – whether in the Republic of Armenia, independent since 1991, or in the Diaspora. It plays an important role in the cultural and educational levers of the country, as well as being co-responsible for some of the scholastic curricula and textbooks within its remit.
Unlike many other Churches, the supreme leader of the Armenian Church (the incumbent is HH Catholicos Karekin II) is elected by clergy and laity alike. In other words, lay men and women have a joint democratic right in selecting their shepherd, and in the process strengthening the bonds between clergy and laity as well as engaging both sides in the life, witness and renewal of the Church.
The majority of the 9 million Armenians world-wide preserve their Armenian identity even as they integrate quite comfortably and successfully in their host countries. Broadly speaking, Armenians rely on three fundamental axes for the consolidation of their Armenian identity. Those axes are their faith (therefore their Church), their language (therefore Armenian), and their education (therefore their schools). In the UK, for instance, Armenians are by and large native speakers in their own homes and with their own families even though many of them are also native British citizens in centres of Armenian presence such as in London and Manchester. Many of them are also faithful to their weekly Saturday and Sunday schools as their young children are enrolled to learn about their language, religion, scouting, customs, social and cultural activities.
But when I write of the Armenian Diaspora, comprising almost half of the overall 9 million, it is also fitting to recall that many of them are living in the Diaspora because they were chased out of their own ancestral homes and lands during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 perpetrated by Ottoman Turks under the cover of WWI. Reading the detailed and academically-sanctioned parliamentary Blue Book authored by Arnold Toynbee & Lord Bryce is enough for one to realise the extent of the Armenian sacrifices during the war. This is why Armenians show recollection and homage to the victims of this genocide – including over one thousand clergy who became martyrs – by recognising their painful death so that the new generations could live in freedom today. After all, as Hitler himself ominously asked his generals as he planned the horrors of the Holocaust and an attack on Poland, “After all, who remembers the Armenians today”?
In Armenian, we have a saying that “it is better to see something once than to hear about it seven times!” I therefore encourage readers to get to know us better as a church, a nation and a people by travelling to Armenia, and enjoying not only our history and culture, but also the budding beauty of our country.