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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.

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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.

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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."