Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 129

The Armenian nation and its Church–the world’s oldest Christian church–are mourning their supreme religious leader, the Catholicos of all Armenians Garegin I, who died of cancer on June 29 in the religious capital Echmiadzin and will be buried there on July 8. Garegin’s death caught the church, the country and the worldwide Armenian diaspora in the midst of preparations to celebrate the 1700th anniversary of Armenia’s adoption of Christianity as the state religion; that event, in 301 AD, preceded by a quarter century Roman Emperor Constantine’s similar step. The Church became the mainstay of Armenian national identity and cultural life during the centuries of Ottoman rule, when the Armenians did not have an inclusive state of their own. Under the Ottoman system, the Armenians–like other Christian denominations– exercised a measure of self-government on a non-territorial basis through the Church, which thus came to play a major political role in national life. During the Soviet era, restrictions and pressures on the Church in Armenia caused most of the Armenian diaspora to rally round the Great House of Cilicia as an alternative ecclesiastical organization, headed also by a Catholicos, headquartered in Lebanon and operating worldwide, free from Soviet control.

Born as Nishan Sarkisian in 1932 in Syria, ordained a celibate priest as Garegin and holder of a doctorate in theology from Oxford, Garegin rose to head the Cilician Catholicosate in 1983, and was elected Catholicos of the Echmiadzin-based Church in Armenia in 1995 after the death of Catholicos Vazgen I. Armenia’s then-President Levon Ter-Petrosian–a native of Syria like Garegin–openly supported the latter’s elevation in Echmiadzin, not least in the hope of healing the ecclesiastical split. The actual unification of the two Armenian Catholicosates remains elusive, however.

Garegin’s tenure was marked by an unprecedented strong effort to restore churches and other monuments, publish religious and historic texts and fill priestly vacancies. Reflecting its identification with modern nationalism, the Armenian Church under Garegin created a new eparchy for Karabakh under Archbishop Parkev Martirosian, undertook reconstruction of churches in that disputed territory and initiated church construction in the Lachin district beyond Karabakh proper.

As part of an ecumenical dialogue, Garegin and Pope John Paul II moved toward resolving the theological dispute between the Roman Catholic and the monophysite Armenian Church. That dispute, dating back to the fifth century and focusing on the nature of Christ, seemed laid to rest in the declaration signed by John Paul II and Garegin in the Vatican in December 1996. However, intransigent elements in the Armenian Church–notably Martirosian–objected and seemed poised to thwart the Pope’s visit to Armenia, planned for this month at Garegin and the government’s invitation.

On July 4, an ecclesiastical assembly in Echmiadzin elected Archbishop Nerses Pozapalian, 62, as interim leader of the Church. Born in Turkey, educated in Soviet Armenia and active in the diaspora’s religious life, Pozapalian shall preside over Garegin’s funeral, which is expected to be an ecumenical event as well as one that should bring the country and the diaspora together. Pozapalian is to organize the election of a new head of the Church, at a special assembly to be held no earlier than six months after the Catholicos’ death (Noyan-Tapan, Azg, Snark, Armenpress, Reuters, June 29-July 5).

The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Jonas Bernstein, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the foundation. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at, by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of the Monitor is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation Site Maintenance by Johnny Flash Productions