Armenia's diaspora funds a religious revival
Armenians from all over the world are hoping to revive a church decimated by decades of communist rule.
Lake Sevan, ARMENIA
On a windswept peninsula that juts out into the blue-black waters of Lake Sevan, the ancient meets modern. Cassock-clad young seminarians wander through a sparkling new building wired for the 21st century and outfitted with a contemporary gym.Skip to next paragraph
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But the traditions here are among Christianity's oldest. In the corridor, between classes at Vaskenian Theological Academy, two students stop and bow to a bearded man with a large silver cross around his neck.
"Father, bless us," they say, each putting a hand to their hearts.
"God will bless you," replies Father Minas Martirossian, the school's deputy dean, who is helping to train a new generation of Armenian priests to repopulate the country's depleted ranks.
Just a decade ago, the Armenian Apostolic Church was struggling to survive at home after decades of communist oppression. Today, the Church is undergoing a rebirth fueled by tens of millions of dollars from the global Armenian diaspora.
"The first years were really difficult," recalls Mr. Martirossian, a former mathematics professor who helped restart the seminary in 1990 as the Soviet Union was crumbling and Armenia moved toward independence. "There was no electricity, no heating, no proper food for students. It wasn't just the seminary. It was the whole country."
Underdeveloped, politically isolated, and partially devastated by a still unresolved war with its neighbor Azerbaijan that raged between 1988 and 1994 as the Soviet Union collapsed, Armenia depends heavily on support from its ethnic diaspora. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into the country to do everything from rebuild roads to renovate water systems to feed orphans.
A little help from Armenia's friends
But perhaps nowhere has diaspora money played a more visible role than in the Armenian Church, which has been central to Armenian culture for centuries.
Armenia first adopted Christianity in AD 301 and claims to be the world's oldest Christian nation.
But under communist rule, religious life there was pushed into the shadows. Churches were seized and shuttered, priests persecuted and many baptisms were conducted in secret. By the time Communism collapsed in 1991, only about 150 priests still remained to serve a population of about 3 million people, largely because of government restrictions on the number of new priests who could be trained.
The situation abroad was very different. Although the church played a pivotal role in cultural life for the approximately 7 million Armenians scattered around the world – primarily in America, Russia, and the Middle East – during the Soviet period, the practical influence of the mother church, located in the Armenian city of Etchmiadzin, and its highest religious leader, the Catholicos of All Armenians, waned.
"The Church's primary responsibility is to lead people to God, but for many years the Armenian church has had a second burden, the protection of Armenianness," says Father Ktrij Devejian, a Armenian-American architect from Fresno, Calif., who in 2004 became the first American-born priest ordained in Etchmiadzin. "In the diaspora, the Church was involved in every aspect of life."