A Review Essay
by Dennis R. Papazian, Ph.D.
The Torch was Passed, the story of 100 years of the Armenian Church in America, is a book which has something for almost anyone. It traces the sometimes torturous journey of a small immigrant parish established by the great Krimian Hayrig, the Catholicos of All Armenians residing in Etchmiadzin, to the largest and most prosperous diocese of the worldwide Armenian Church, with a unique mission serve its people and to aid the church in the homeland.
The book is an eye opener. Controversy in the church and the problems created by human foibles, it seems, are nothing new. As one reflects on the status of the early immigrants, uneducated refugees from the crude and degenerate Ottoman Empire, it is no wonder that they did not have a clear vision of themselves and their future. They quarreled among themselves seeking answers to questions they themselves could not comprehend, much less articulate and analyze.
Little did they know that most of them would never again see their native villages and that two decades later their compatriots would be massacred and driven from their ancestral homeland. Little could they envision that the one segment of the Armenian land which would survive the Genocide would be forcibly incorporated into the godless Soviet Union which persecuted the pitiful survivors to the breaking point. And then there was America. God, it would seem, was planting a seed in the New World which would flower over the next century and blossom into a giant oak which would give shelter and assistance to His scattered and oppressed Armenian flock in the Old World as well as keep them together in the new world.
Interestingly, the Armenians in America now play the role vis- a-vis the homeland that the Armenians of Cilicia, India, Iran and Lebanon had played in the past, providing money and contemporary administrative expertise to a homeland in need of comfort, direction and support. The success of this aid depends in large measure on the unity of our forces in the diaspora.
This book is based on a manuscript of some five hundred pages written by Fr. Arten Ashjian which was deemed too lengthy for publication. Christopher Zakian was asked to reduce the size to a more readable 158 pages of text and to incorporate the interesting materials in the appendices to give the whole work a consistent style. The authors and the editor are to be thanked for a job well done. While the book is obviously written from a particular point of view, it is relatively objective. It would be a worthwhile addition to any home library.
Catholicos Krimian Hayrig
Krimian Hayrig, although responding to a call from America, was prescient in his vision and concern when he established the new church with a gontag (encyclical) in 1898. Krimian, a true father to his people, stands out as a giant in Armenian history. Under the most trying circumstances he, in both word and deed, demonstrated his bountiful love and deep concern for his flock wherever they might be and whatever their condition.
The Catholicos' gontag began, as usual, in eloquent classical Armenian. "Mgrdich, servant of Jesus Christ, and by the incomprehensible will of God, Chief Bishop and Catholicos of All Armenians, Supreme Patriarch of the National Pre-Eminent See of the Araratian Apostolic Universal Mother Church of Holy Etchmiadzin. Christ-given greetings, together with our patriarchal blessings to all of you, beloved Armenian expatriates. You remain the children of our Holy Cathedral of Etchmiadzin, the Mother of light, although you are living in that New World, America, and her cities and suburbs. . . ."
But shortly thereafter he sat aside the classical tongue and began to write in the everyday language of his people so that they might understand his apostolic message and heed his words. Krimian Hayrig readily understood what few people comprehend today, that great thoughts can be expressed in simple words.
"It is the will of a mysterious Providence that our nation should live in exile, as settlers in foreign lands. Yet that same God has not forgotten the Armenians, or Armenia. He has protected our people wherever they live, granted them success, and has day by day multiplied their number." . . .
"Dear expatriates, remember the instructions our Savior gave to his disciples: This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you [John 15:12]. My own command to you is the same: That you love each other as I love you. Let this be the sign that you are my children." . . .
"Live with each other in peace and in love, so that you may preserve your existence in a foreign land where many languages are spoken. Let your honest way of life and your civilized demeanor gain respect for you in the eyes of non-Armenians. Give no one cause to trouble or hate you. Be of one mind and of one will in the way you conduct your work and your worship of God. . . ."
Krimian Hayrig also understood that the Armenian Church would have difficulty surviving among the enticements of the rich, beautiful and well-led churches in America. He called upon his flock not to be lured away. ". . . It should be sufficient to have a poor priest of the Mother Church instruct you through his modest sermon, teaching you the philanthropy of the Gospel, love for friends, charity for the poor, awe before God, and a patriotic spirit. . . . . "
Krimian Hayrig realized that the Armenian people, so demoralized by overwhelming outward problems with which they could not contend, would have a tendency to turn inward and quarrel among themselves Knowing this, he wrote: ". . . I pray that all disagreements, quarrels and factions may disappear from your midst, and that the spirit of God's peace and gentleness will prevail."
The encyclical was ended with these inspiring words: "Accept the elderly Hayrig's loving and heartfelt blessing, which I have enclosed in my encyclical. I am sending this to quench your thirsty and anxious ears, like heavenly, life-giving dew from Mother Armenia, from snow-capped Massis, from Mt. Arakadz, the place where the Enlightener prayed and rested, from the Araks River, and from Holy Etchmiadzin."
Truly Krimian Hayrig was a great man and a unique leader of the Armenian people, having served as Patriarch in the Ottoman Empire before he was chosen Catholicos of All Armenians. He was among the wisest and most patriotic of our leaders. Unfortunately, the love, peace, harmony and unity for which he prayed have not yet blessed the Armenian church in America.
The root cause of the future disharmony within the church, over and above the inclination in many people to seek their personal gain rather than the good of the community, was the catastrophe of the Armenian Genocide and the subsequent fall of the first independent Armenian Republic, which had been established by the blood, sweat and tears of the Armenian remnant.
The fall of the first Armenian Republic, 1918-1920, was not due to any fault of the Armenian people. The Republic fell because it was surrounded by numerous and powerful enemies: the Russian Empire was resurrected in the form of an evolving Soviet Union and the Ottoman Empire was reborn as the belligerent Republic of Turkey. Both powers, supported by large armies, wanted to expand into the Caucasus--the Russians to reestablish their old borders and the Turks to replace their European and Middle Eastern losses by dominating the Caucasus and Turkish Central Asia.
Confronted by the Bolsheviks on the one side and the Nationalist Turks on the other, the Armenian leadership--made up mostly of distinguished leaders of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--decided that the Bolsheviks were the lesser of the two evils and surrendered to them. The Turks, if they had taken Armenia, would have finished the genocide which they began in 1915. The Bolsheviks who took over Armenia were young and inexperienced doctrinaire communists who took the Marxist-Leninist idea of the class struggle to the extreme and began to kill or expel Armenia's natural leaders and large parts of the population. Faced by mass and irrational purges, the Dashnaks revolted against Soviet power only to be defeated and confronted with worse purges and miseries.
It is little wonder that the Dashnaks and their followers hated the Bolsheviks with blind passion, a hatred which boiled over to America and not only included the few chic Bolsheviks who could be found here and there among the Armenians but also everyone else who passively accepted the new reality. "Those who are now with us are against us." In Armenia, there was no alternative but to concede to reality, no matter how distasteful it was. As bad as the Bolsheviks were, and there is no questioning evil actions, they were better than the genocidal Turks. In any case, a whole nation could not flee. So, those who remained tried to make the best of an ugly situation. After all, the Armenians had survived under the Ottomans for five hundred years and people could expect they would survive the domination of the Bolsheviks.
The church, of course, was particularly hard hit by the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks attacked all the churches in all the areas of the former Russian Empire which they controlled, killing churchmen, closing monasteries and seminaries, desecrating church building, and persecuting the faithful. The Armenian Church had survived under disastrous conditions for centuries. This new tribulation, as bad as it was, was also to be endured.
The Catholicos of All Armenians, Kevork V (Sourenian), refused to recognize the communist regime until persecution of the Church reached such a crescendo that he finally acquiesced. From that time on, he signed his official papers as "Kevork the Sorrowful." Two years after his death in 1930, the communists finally allowed a new election and His Holiness Khoren (Mooradbegian) was chosen to lead the church. Six years after his election, in 1938, Catholicos Khoren was murdered by agents of the Soviet secret police. As Christopher Zakian put it, "Given the terrible choice between his life and his integrity as the Catholicos of All Armenians, Khoren Mooradbegian remained loyal first and foremost to the Mother Church, the Armenian people, and to the God they served." His martyrdom was the consequence of his commitment to conscience and the Armenian people.
Disharmony Within the Church
The disaster in Armenia, as was noted, had its repercussions in America. Many Armenians in this country believed that the Armenians in Armenia, the overwhelming majority of whom were mere involuntary victims, had somehow been tainted by Bolshevism. Since the battle had been lost in far away Armenia, the fight was continued in America. Since the real enemy could not be reached, the Armenians began to fight among themselves. Those who felt it necessary to accept the new reality and to find a way to live within it were accused, inspired by the blinding passion of the opposition, of being soft on Bolshevism. The other side accused the opposition of abandoning an Armenia in need.
It was in this context, then, that Archbishop Levon Tourian came to be assassinated in Holy Cross Church on Christmas eve in 1933. The Armenian church in America, which began to be fragmented at the time of the Soviet occupation of Armenia, was now to be totally split in two. Parish turned against parish, family against family, brother against brother.
The split of the church in America was fruitless. As Murat Acemoglu wrote recently, "This [split in the church] was very unusual for us. Even under Turkish rule we always considered ourselves one nation with one church, and when Armenia was a Soviet republic, we considered it ours. After all, throughout our turbulent history, we had many foreign intruders and rulers in Armenia, but occupation forces and foreign rulers all came and went, but we remained as one nation."
In matter of fact, nothing done by the Armenians in America made much difference in the larger struggle in Armenia. The communist regime in Armenia did not fall under outside Armenian pressure, but fell only in 1990 when the Soviet Union began to implode from within.
During the World War II years, the Primate of the Diocese was the venerable Archbishop Karekin Hovsepian. He accomplished many good works, including instituting the Lousavorichi Looma (the mite of the Enlightener), dues assessed to each parish for the support of the besieged Mother See in Etchmiadzin. After having served the Diocese for several years, Archbishop Karekin was elected the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, where he also served with the greatest distinction. The fact that so many of our current priests and bishops are named Karekin, in honor of this great churchman, testifies to the high esteem in which the great Archbishop and Catholicos was universally held.
The office of the Catholicos of All Armenians had been occupied by a locum tenens since the murder of Catholicos Khoren in 1938 at the height of the Stalinist purges. In 1945, immediately following World War II, Stalin finally allowed an election to be held. Archbishop Kevork Cheorekjian was elected as Kevork VI, and His Holiness Karekin Hovsepian of the Great House of Cilicia presided at the consecration. Fraternal relations between the two Sees had not yet been ruptured.
Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan
The brilliant Tiran Nersoyan was chosen to replace the venerable Archbishop Karekin as Primate in America. Archbishop Tiran's leadership brought about several important advances for the Diocese. First, he creatively brought new priests from Jerusalem and Istanbul to meet the dire shortage of qualified clerics. He instituted the Armenian Church Youth Organization of America, which was to bring the young people closer to the Church and prepare a new generation of leadership. Furthermore, he began the Cathedral project which resulted in the building of a new diocesan headquarters and St. Vartan's Cathedral in New York City. And finally, he worked for the establishment of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary to train priests in America for service in America and abroad. Surely his tenure marked a turning point in the advancement of the Armenian Church.
As Zakian writes, "it would not be misleading to assert that the story of the Diocese's second fifty years can be read as a series of footnotes to the first, fertile years of Bishop Nersoyan's primacy."
By 1946, however, the Cold War had begun and communication between Armenia and the Diaspora effectively broke down. Nevertheless, Archbishop Tiran had been commissioned by the Catholicos of All Armenians in Etchmiadzin, Kevork VI, to heal the rupture in the Armenian Church in America and he approached that goal with vigor. The negotiations, which seemed to be leading to a favorable conclusion, finally failed, ostensibly because of the refusal of Catholicos of All Armenians to reinstate two defrocked priests. The real reasons, of course, go much deeper.
Archbishop Tiran, to the shame of the community, was attacked by both opposing sides. On the one hand, Dashnak partisans accused him of being naive about Communism and too loyal to Etchmiadzin, while on the other hand Ramgavar partisans accused him of not being faithful to the traditions of the Armenian Church or sufficiently loyal to Etchmiadzin. Archbishop Tiran could not be both loyal and disloyal to Etchmiadzin at the same time, but the logic of reality was not comprehensible to partisans blinded by ideology. When reality competes with ideology, realism loses every time. Archbishop Tiran, of blessed memory, suffered the consequences of attempting to find a middle way.
Despite his problems, Archbishop Tiran made an unequaled contribution to the growth and prosperity of the Armenian Church in America, not only by building churches and bringing priests from Jerusalem and Istanbul, but through publications, organizing the youth, developing relations with sister churches and by establishing the first Armenian seminary in America.
Bowed but not broken by the controversy surrounding him on all sides, Archbishop Tiran persevered until his final election as Primate did not receive confirmation from Etchmiadzin. Under the circumstances, he resigned. He would not be a party to the further fragmentation of the Armenian Church. The story of Archbishop Tiran's further sad misfortune in Jerusalem, where self serving clerics denied him the patriarchy, is also related in the book. Archbishop Tiran's story is one of the most tragic in the history of the Armenian Church, a great man caught between two warring Armenian factions in America and beset upon by rapacious clerics in Jerusalem, with the Armenian people being the losers by having been deprived of one of the most brilliant and far sighted of their leaders.
In 1955, a year after the death of Catholicos Kevork VI, Bishop Vasken Baljian, the forty-seven-year old primate of the diocese of Romania, was elected Catholicos of All Armenians. During his almost unprecedented four-decade tenure in office, Vasken I walked a tightrope with the Communist regime. While ostensibly keeping "his place," he quietly worked toward the independence and strengthening of the church, something which I personally witnessed. Catholicos Vasken I was also to make three notable visits to America, including the time he consecrated St. Vartan Cathedral in 1968.
Establishment of the Prelacy
After the election and consecration of Vasken I, and while Archbishop Tiran was in Jerusalem, events were taking place in Antelias which would harden the split in the Armenian church in America and have an affect on Armenian church dioceses in other parts of the world. After the death of His Holiness Karekin Hovsepian, the See of Cilicia fell vacant. Interestingly, the election of his successor did not take place for four years.
There was a struggle, apparently, going on among the various political factions in Lebanon. When the election finally took place, Bishop Zareh Payaslian of Aleppo, Syria, was designated as the new Catholicos. Vasken I, who was present at the proceedings, issued a gontag in December of 1957 in which he called the election "biased and imperfect." The net result was that three Armenian bishops could not be found to consecrate the Catholicos designate. Finally, two Armenian bishops and one Syrian bishop performed the ceremony. It was in this atmosphere of contention that the Armenian parishes in the United States, today called the Prelacy church, applied in late 1957 to Catholicos Zareh to be taken under his administration. In this way, the split in the church in America was hardened with the Prelacy group declaring allegiance to Antelias.
Archbishop Torkom Manoogian
The long tenure of Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, who in 1966 replaced the modest and pious Archbishop Sion Manoogian as Primate in America, witnessed the unequaled growth of the Diocese and of the Diocesan Office. There was much progress in most areas, particularly in the area of public relations and a church endowment. Archbishop Torkom was a maximalist, believing that the Church's scope was broad and rich enough to embrace everyone and all things religious and cultural. During his twenty-four years as leader of the Diocese, he put the Armenian Church firmly on the map. His tenure also encompassed most of the twenty plus years of negotiations seeking to heal the rupture of the Armenian Church in America. Zakian covers Archbishop Torkom's accomplishments in interesting detail.
Archbishop Khajag Barsamian
Fr. Khajag Barsamian was elected diocesan Primate in 1990. He took up his work with the energy of a young man, traveling extensively in the United States and frequently visiting Armenia, the doors of which creaked opened after the earthquake of 1988. His visits became more frequent after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 when the doors of Armenia opened wide with the establishment of the second Armenian Republic.
Catholicos Vasken I meanwhile had lent his moral support to the establishment of the Republic and began opening churches and sponsoring numerous religious gatherings and rallies, including public and mass baptisms. His Holiness Karekin II of the Great House of Cilicia began to visit Armenia around this time and became a frequent companion to the ageing Vasken I. Relations between Etchmiadzin and Cilicia vastly improved, with Catholicos Karekin II of Cilicia emulating the good feelings of his great predecessor Karekin I toward Etchmiadzin, freely recognizing the spiritual preeminence of the Catholicos of All Armenians.
Archbishop Khajag not only witnessed the foundation of the second Republic in 1991, he also witnessed the entrance of Armenia into the United Nations in 1992. During his relatively brief tenure to date, Archbishop Khajag has not only worked for the rejuvenation of the church but has also served to help the democratic government of Armenia learn to establish ties with America as it grows in experience. In addition, he has presided over the most extensive aid program to Armenia in history. These important activities indeed represent a broadening of the responsibilities of the Primate. All the while, Archbishop Khajag has paid special attention to supporting, expanding and deepening the program of St. Nersess Seminary, and he has ordained a dozen young priests who are sorely needed in the parishes. He also gives special attention to mission parishes which need his guidance and inspiration, contributing funds from his own pocket.
In 1994, Catholicos Vasken I passed away. The very next year a National Ecclesiastical Assembly convened, at which time His Holiness Karekin II (Sarkisian) of the Great House of Cilicia was elected as Karekin I, Catholicos of All Armenians, by a great National Ecclesiastical Assembly meeting in Armenia. I was privileged to participate in this impressive gathering of Armenian leaders from all over the world. The election of the devout and learned Karekin Sarkisian, the most outstanding Armenian churchman in the world, gave new impetus to the growth of the church in Armenia and the quest for church unity in America. Archbishop Khajag, accordingly, had also to face the seemingly intractable Unity issue.
Search for Unity
Many in the Prelacy argue that the two ecclesiastical units have grown culturally apart over the years and that unity will first require cooperation to bridge the gap. Many in the Diocese argue that the Prelacy is no longer interested in unity but merely wants to enjoy identical status as a legitimate unit of the Armenian Church. The situation was at an impasse when Archbishop Khajag announced a trial dispensation to grant his priests, by individual request, the opportunity to allow Prelacy clergy to participate in baptisms, funerals, and weddings, but not in the Divine Liturgy or church offices, in Diocesan churches.
This gesture of accommodation has apparently borne no fruit, since the last Prelacy assembly voted to refer the unity issue to the two catholicoi for settlement. The Diocese, on the other hand, voted to leave the doors open for further negotiations with Prelacy officials. One might think by this time that fresh teams of negotiators should be fielded by the Diocese and the Prelacy to keep talks going and doors open.
It is a pity that while the reasons for the split in the Church, such as they were, have disappeared with the fall of Communism and the legal recognition of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation as a political party in Armenia, there is still no healing of the rupture. Contrary to the canons of the universal church, we are apparently doomed to have two dioceses in one physical territory.
The reasons for the failure of the struggle for unity are manifold, not the least of which, undoubtedly, are the perceived self interest of many people in the two structures. While uniting the churches will bring great savings and efficiencies in church administration and effectiveness, it is also true that it will make many people in high places redundant. Unity under Etchmiadzin would also entail a significant loss of revenue for Antelias unless special arrangements are made. Since the American Diocese had warm relations with Antelias until Antelias accepted the Prelacy under its jurisdiction, providing financially for Antelias would not be improbable. In any case, the search for church unity in America may depend ultimately on the relations between the Dashnak party and the government of Armenia.
These other interesting and revealing topics are touched upon in The Torch Was Passed, some in fascinating detail. There are also appendices covering the Western Diocese, the Canadian Diocese, the unity movement from a Diocesan perspective, a chronology of the Armenian Church of America, and an overview of the parishes of the Eastern Diocese, including most of the mission churches. The chronology, in parallel columns, includes the events in the Diocese, the Armenian world, the United States, and the world at large. It is most helpful in following events.
As might be expected, minor errors have crept in here and there. St. Petersburg has been left out of the list of mission parishes (p. 157) and sketches of mission parishes in the appendix, and Fr. Diran Papazian's 13 years of service to St. Gregory of Narek Church in Cleveland is not noted among those who served. In a work of this type covering a vast span of time and so many subjects such oversights can be expected. It is hoped that any other errors will be uncovered and corrected for the next edition. It is also a pity that such a valuable work does not have an index, which could be used to find certain topics, or a bibliography, which could lead serious readers to more detailed accounts of certain issues.
It should be clear, however, that Christopher Zakian, working with materials chiefly provided by others, has woven the story in a well-written, insightful, and informative whole. This book has something for everyone. The young will learn of a heroic past they have never known, adults will relive their own experience and see them in the larger context, and everyone will get a perspective for dealing with the future. It is also a book which makes a point. The torch of Armenian enlightenment has been passed in large degree to America. It is up to the present and future generations to write the story of the next hundred years.
Remembering Krimian Hayrig
It is sad, however, that after a hundred years the great Krimian Hayrig's admonition has not been taken to heart by his flock in America. As he wrote a century ago, ". . . I pray that all disagreements, quarrels and factions may disappear from your midst, and that the spirit of God's peace and gentleness will prevail."
Perhaps it is not too late. Perhaps Krimian Hayrig's prayer will be answered. Perhaps unity will prevail. Perhaps we will not have to wait another hundred years to bring peace to the Armenian church.
Dr. Dennis R. Papazian is the Director of Armenian Research Center at the University of Michigan in Dearborn, MI.
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