ECHMIADZIN, USSR — IN the year AD 301, St. Gregory the Illuminator traveled to the mountainous land of Armenia from Parthia. His conversion of pagan Armenia to Christianity created the oldest Christian nation in the world. Two years later, the cathedral in Echmiadzin was built on the site of a pagan temple. The present cathedral was rebuilt in the 6th to 7th centuries and added to afterward. Its arched roofs are painted with oriental designs of flowers and cyprus trees. In its simplicity and light, the style is completely apart from the dark, icon-dominated Russian Orthodox Church.
To this day, Echmiadzin remains the See of the Catholicos, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Tourists and worshipers from across the world stroll through the landscaped grounds surrounding the cathedral and the seminary, all built of soft volcanic stone known as tuff.
Very early on, the Armenian church established a separate identity. In the 5th century, it broke doctrinally from the religious ideology of the Byzantine court, rejecting the dogma of the dual nature of Jesus Christ. It survived the pressures of Zoroastrianism, of Islam, and of Communism, and for long periods of time when Armenians were subjects of foreign powers, the leaders of the church were also the leaders of the nation. The church claims the allegiance of Armenians from Fresno, Calif., to Yerevan.
"The Armenian Church is a national church, historically inseparable from the Armenian people since 1,700 years ago," Vazken I, the catholicos, says. "Today the church has the same mission in the lives of the Armenian people."
Vazken I is widely respected, even in Soviet circles, as a statesman, sensitive to the political realities of survival under Communist rule. Since the nationalist government came to power in Soviet Armenia last August, conditions have significantly been altered.
"The work of the Armenian Church had been constrained within the borders of Armenia during the Communist era," Vazken I explains. "In other words, its ability to work and perform deeds for the Armenian people was very limited. Now that Armenia is an independent republic, our church has fallen into its normal path and mission.
"Of course," he adds, "our new government is very respectful toward our church, because it is a government of democratic spirit and soul. They respect the liberty of religious conscience."
He points to the presence of the Armenian president and government leaders at Easter services at their mother church here as an example of the changes. In his lilting voice, Vazken I says with obvious satisfaction, "Again our church is freely pursuing its destiny for the Armenian future. God's word prevailed."