Tuesday 26 October

by Felix Corley Keston News Service

When the 451 delegates from Armenian communities around the world
assemble on 27 October at the ancient monastery of Echmiadzin near
Yerevan, they will have as their task the election of the most worthy
and pious candidate to take over leadership of the Armenian Apostolic
Church worldwide as the 132nd Catholicos. But - elections being
elections - this contest has already degenerated into frenzied
accusations of government meddling, bribery and blackmail. Talk
emerged of boycotts by the National Ecclesiastical Assembly or even
splits in the Church.

Almost uniquely among historic Churches, the choice of Armenian Church
leader is made at an assembly with delegates from every diocese of the
Church. The Church currently has 29 dioceses, including eight in
Armenia, one in Nagorno-Karabakh and four in other CIS countries. Only
one third of the delegates are clergy, with male and female laypeople
making up the other two-thirds. All candidates will be discussed in
the first round, three will get through to the second round and two to
the third round. The post of catholicos will go to a candidate who
scores the greatest number of votes.

The high number of lay delegates from so many countries makes the
election process transparent and potentially unpredictable. Inevitably
though the secular authorities show a keen interest. During the Soviet
period the favoured candidate was clear to all delegates, while in
1995 - the last time an election was held - then President LEVON
TER-PETROSYAN declared openly his personal (though not official)
support for KAREKIN SARKISSIAN, who was duly elected on the second

This time is no exception, despite Armenian legislation that spells
out the clear separation of church and state. Article 17 of the 1991
law on religion declares categorically: `In the Republic of Armenia,
Church and State are separate... On the basis of this separation, the
State ... shall not interfere in the activities and internal affairs
of church and religious organisations.' The government seems to have
begun early in influencing the vote by quietly getting local governors
in Armenia's regions to push for the nomination of their candidates as
diocesan lay delegates to the Assembly. The delegation from the Ararat
diocese includes the mayor of Yerevan and the police chief of the
southern city of Ararat.

The conflict burst into the open on 25 September, when the text was
released of a `Pastoral Appeal' by six senior clerics - among them the
acting Catholicos, NERSES BOZABALYAN, and the Church's two Patriarchs,
MESROP MUTAFYAN of Istanbul and TORKOM MANOOGIAN of Jerusalem - for
end to what they saw as government meddling. `Secular powers,
political parties, social organisations and individuals need to
restrain themselves,' they wrote, `display an objective approach, and
refrain from any kind of intervention that would cast into question
the normal process of the election.'

Attacking what they saw as the government's `consensus in favour of
one of the candidates' (who remained unnamed in the appeal), the
bishops warned that the `moral and legal process of the election of
the Catholicos of All Armenians has been thereby placed in jeopardy -
with attendant consequences as yet unforeseen'.

Archbishop PARKEV MARTIROSYAN of Nagorno-Karabakh later confirmed
widespread speculation that the government's preferred candidate was
Archbishop KAREKIN NERSESSIAN of the Ararat Diocese, which includes
the capital, Yerevan. Patriarch Mutafyan reported government officials
telling church leaders that they had files on all the bishops, hinting
that blackmail might be deployed if Nersessian were not chosen.

VAHE GABRIELYAN, the spokesman for Armenian President ROBERT
KOCHARYAN, denied the government's interference in the election, but
evidence continued to emerge from leading bishops. Kocharyan was
forced to repeat that the government had no officially-favoured
candidate, although he admitted to a `personal' favourite.

Why should the government be promoting Nersessian's candidacy, given
that government leaders are not noted for their personal piety or
interest in church affairs? The position of Catholicos has immense
symbolic prestige and is the only post elected by representatives of
all seven million Armenians worldwide, so naturally the Armenian
authorities would like to see a candidate elected who would be broadly
supportive of the government. Conspiracy theorists reckon that LOUISE
SIMONE MANOOGIAN, the head of the Armenian General Benevolent Union -
a major donor to Armenia - has promised large donations to the country
if her candidate is chosen.

Besides, many argue, the government has seen two diaspora Armenians
elected in succession (VAZGEN, elected in 1955, was from Romania,
while his successor, Karekin Sarkissian, was from Syria) and should
favour a local man. Others believe they regard Nersessian - a good
manager but not a strong leader - as a more pliant potential

But significantly, the Appeal signatories included not only diaspora
bishops but Archbishop Martirosyan of Karabakh and Archbishop TIRAN
KYUREGYAN of Moscow as well (Russia is considered the `internal
diaspora'). Those in the `stop Nersessian' movement began to line up
behind a slightly reluctant Patriarch Mesrop Mutafyan, since another
of the Appeal signatories, Archbishop KHAJAG BARSAMIAN of New York,
publicly declared in September that he was not presenting himself as a
candidate. Mutafyan - elected only last year as Patriarch of Istanbul
against the wishes of the Turkish government - has the difficult task
of shepherding the Armenian flock in Turkey, a duty he takes very
seriously and would be reluctant to leave. In the end he too declared
he would not be a candidate.

Another potentially serious contender is Catholicos ARAM of the Great
House of Cilicia, based in Beirut. Were he to be elected it would
emulate the 1995 move of Karekin Sarkissian, Aram's predecessor, to
Echmiadzin. But despite recent articles in the Yerevan press
supporting him Aram has consistently ruled himself out.

Controversy raged right up to the last minute. Hundreds of
intellectuals gathered in Yerevan on 21 October to condemn what they
see as undue pressure from the state. They adopted a statement
demanding that the Ecclesiastical Assembly convene several months
later. Demands to postpone the vote were also made by two major
political parties. One of them, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation,
is particularly influential in Diaspora communities.

But the election is to go ahead as planned. It is not yet clear how
the electoral arithmetic will add up. Armenia will be represented with
160 delegates, most of them from the Ararat Diocese, thus giving
Karekin Nersessian a potentially large block of votes. Nersessian won
the most votes in the first round in the 1995 election, but withdrew
in favour of Karekin Sarkissian, so he clearly has electoral
potential. With the backing of the government and the AGBU he may yet
be home and dry. But if many of his opponents carry through their
threat to boycott the poll - and the six signatories of the Appeal
claimed to represent 35 bishops - the legitimacy of the Assembly's
choice may be cast into doubt.

The National Ecclesiastical Assembly and the Bishops' Council, which
met ahead of the Assembly, provide an opportunity for the Church as a
whole to discuss crucial questions facing it. Archbishop VATCHE
HOVSEPIAN, Chairman of the Organising Committee of the National
Ecclesiastical Assembly and Primate of the US Western Diocese, told
Armenian International Magazine that the two most important issues
discussed at the bishops' council on 25 October pertained to a new
constitution of the Armenian Church and Church-State relations.

Of most concern for the hierarchy of the Church is the problem of
church properties and their legal status in Armenia. `We have many
properties which were confiscated during the Soviet period. Some of
the properties were given back, some of them have not, and there is a
general uncertainty about the legal status of church properties
throughout the country,' said Hovsepian. `These have to be clarified
on a legal basis.'

In the framework of church-state relations, several high-ranking
bishops told AIM that they wish the Armenian Apostolic Church would be
declared the official state church of Armenia. While affirming that
other denominations could exist and work in Armenia, they believe the
Armenian Church should be the official Church of Armenia, as in the
case of the Church of England. A committee has been set to study
these issues and present recommendations to both the College of
Bishops and the National Ecclesiastical Assembly. Hovespian also
stressed that the Church was seeking to have religious education in
schools as a normal part of the curriculum. This has already been
enacted in Nagorno-Karabakh. (END)

CORRECTION TO: 'Pre-Revolution Years Included in '15 Year' Russian Law
Requirement'. Founder of the Christian Scientists is Mary Baker Eddy, not Eddie as it
was incorrectly spelled. Secondly, a group of Christian Scientists exists in Moscow as
well as in St Petersburg.

All Keston News Service material is protected by copyright:
(c) Keston Institute 1999