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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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."

Now, Armenians outside the country are helping to rebuild the church at home. In the past seven years, diasporans have donated at least $50 million for construction and fund 85 percent of the Church's overall operating expenses.

Across the country, 52 new churches – and a giant new cathedral – were constructed, and 31 have been renovated. Five more are under construction and 10 more are being renovated.

Today, Devejian – who returned to Armenia at the current Catholicos' request to help build the Church's international connections – marvels at the dramatic rebuilding and expansion underway at Etchmiadzin, the Church's historic headquarters. There's a large, bustling seminary, a new administration building, museum, and baptistery. And the original residence of the Catholicos is being renovated.

"Etchmiadzin hasn't seen a building boom like this in maybe 400 years," says Devejian. "There isn't a building in Armenia under the authority of Etchmiadzin that hasn't been built with diaspora money."

'The difference today is freedom'

The revival of a seminary at Lake Sevan is representative of a broader revitalization of the Armenian church in its birthplace. Under Soviet rule, the monastery there was shut down after more than a millennium in existence.

In 1990, the peninsula was returned to the church. A few dozen Armenian students and teachers from New Jersey, including Father Minas, moved to the site to reintroduce religious instruction and a clergy. At first, they lived and worked in a single, unheated building.

Six years later, a wealthy Armenian from Damascus funded the construction of a new seminary building and small church.

Today the seminary houses 72 students and has helped double the number of priests in Armenia to more than 400. For the first time in many decades, Armenia is once again beginning to export priests to the diaspora.

But Devejian admits there is still much work to be done to convince Armenians inside the country to return to the church's fold – particularly those raised under Soviet rule.

Many of those being baptized today are adults, but Armenia's churches are still full of old women and young people born after the end of communism. Many Armenians raised under communist rule see no reason to abandon their secularism.

"The Soviets did a very good job of destroying the role of the church as part of society," says Devejian, noting that Catholicos' main priority is to rebuild parish life by rebuilding churches and returning priests to communities.

David Mangasaryan, a 21-year-old priest-in-training at Lake Sevan, is optimistic that Armenians will return to the church.

"The difference today is freedom," says Mr. Mangasaryan. "Our generation is free. We can choose our God and we can choose our religion."

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