ARMENIA: Will Apostolic Church Get Concordat?

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 27 September 2001

Eighteen months after representatives of the Armenian Apostolic Church and the government signed a Memorandum of Understanding intended as the preliminary stage towards a concordat between Church and state, Keston News Service has learnt that there has been no visible progress towards that concordat. The document - signed at the Church's headquarters in Echmiadzin on 17 March 2000 - set up bilateral working groups to hammer out conditions for Church-state collaboration in education, social services, state protocol, the military, prisons and the media. Although the Memorandum stipulates that a final agreement should be reached within nine months, twice that period has elapsed without any further document being signed.

During interviews with Keston in Yerevan in mid-September, both Church and state representatives continued to enthuse about a concordat. Although unable to offer further details on 11 September, Memorandum signatory Bishop Navasard (Ktchoyan) of Ararat maintained that the concordat would entail amendments to the country's Constitution 'underlining the exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Church - the skin of our nation'.

While Hrachya Simonyan of the government's Council for Religious Affairs was likewise unable to give precise details regarding the future concordat, he expected it to name the Armenian Apostolic Church as 'the national church'. Like Japan, he explained to Keston on 13 September, Armenia has 'one nationality, one state, one religion'. Although the 1997 law on religion already stipulates as 'privileges of the national church' such wide-ranging activities as dissemination of faith, construction of new churches, religious instruction in state educational institutions, charity and military and hospital chaplaincies (Article 17), Simonyan claimed that this law was 'unclear' about what these privileges were. At present the state merely gives 'a certain priority' in practice to the Apostolic Church, he said, which would acquire legal foundation with the concordat.

Speaking to Keston on 10 September, the press secretary to Catholicos Karekin II, Gnel Nalbandyan, pointed out that - notwithstanding the delay to the concordat - a formal agreement had already been reached between the Apostolic Church and the military. In his official report for the eight months preceding 28-30 March 2001, the Catholicos states that 'a set of by-laws were agreed upon and signed by the Mother See and the Ministry of Defence' on 14 September 2000 at Echmiadzin, according to which 20 chaplains are now serving in the army. 'Our clergy have also started to baptise soldiers who were deprived of these rites in their childhood,' reports the Catholicos.

It would appear, however, that disagreement over the initiative for the concordat - both Church and state representatives told Keston that it was theirs - is indicative of disharmony on other issues. The uncertainty over when the concordat will be completed, according to Bishop Navasard, is due to 'a conflict over religious instruction'. While the Apostolic Church wants the concordat to sanction the introduction of its catechism into schools, he explained, the state would prefer a different subject to be taught: 'the history of the Armenian Church'. Officials at the Council for Religious Affairs confirmed to Keston that the government would at most be in favour of some schools offering the catechism as an optional subject.

Bishop Navasard believes a concordat should be signed only with the Apostolic Church. Simonyan also thought that it would be 'more than incorrect' to sign concordats with other confessions and so remove them from the ramifications of the religion law, under which, he maintained, 'they have perfectly sufficient freedom'. On the contrary, he said, this law should be made harsher.

Speaking to Keston in the northern town of Gyumri on 14 September, Armenian Catholic Archbishop Nerses Der-Nersessian expressed concern that the concordat would give the Apostolic Church sole access to public spheres such as education and prisons. 'If we get a request from a prison, hospital or school we have the right to go there according to our charter,' he argued. According to the head of the Catholic charity Caritas in Armenia, Fr Mikayel Muradyan, Armenian Catholic priests currently teach their catechism in predominantly Catholic village schools around Gyumri at their headmasters' request.

Archbishop Nerses was additionally concerned that - notwithstanding the few differences between the two Churches (the understanding of the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ, papal primacy and the timing of three feast days) - the concordat might give the Apostolic Church the exclusive right to approve catechism books. 'The state should give freedom to other denominations,' he maintained. 'Armenia is a member of the United Nations, so it cannot oblige people to be members of the Apostolic Church.' (END)