Armenian bishop quietly preaches religion in an atheistic land

His voice is soft, in keeping with the message he is conveying. ''Is not our goal to show that a harmonious life comes from spiritual things, not material?'' asks Bishop Bozabalian Nerses, chancellor of the Secretariat of the Catholicosate of the Armenian Christian Church.

In an interview at the Catholicosate in Echmiadzin, Armenia, he said it is possible for churches to exist - and even expand - under Soviet communist rule.

Bishop Nerses' comments came before the Communist Party's Central Committee issued an edict for party members to step up efforts against religion in Armenia.

The party, it seems, will have its work cut out for it. Efforts to promote atheism here run counter to a long tradition of Christian belief. Armenians say their nation was the world's first Christian state (proclaimed by Gregory the Illuminator in 301). Ironically, it is now incorporated into the Soviet Union.

Yet, in quiet, measured tones, Bishop Nerses spoke of the measured progress of his church - despite the restrictions it faces.

''I believe the number of baptisms during recent years has reached to 65 to 70 percent'' of infants born in Armenia, he said.

There are 31 Armenian churches now open in the region, he says, ''and we have the promise (from the state), in the future, to reopen five more.

''We have a publishing house. Every year we publish a review.''

The New Testament, he says, has been published three times since World War II. And, he adds, ''We are looking forward in a few years' time to publishing the complete Bible, newly translated.''

He concedes that it would be preferable if churches were allowed to conduct religious instruction, but says, ''In our families, somehow, the parents teach them.''

Atheism taught in the schools has an effect on ''perhaps some of'' the children, he admits, but says, ''We are not at all dissatisfied with the attitudes of the new generation toward the church, the culture, the faith.''

Bishop Nerses acknowledges that some critics have argued that churches in this country should more forcefully delineate the differences between Christianity and communism. But he says he does not agree.

''Christ himself, by humbleness, conquered the world,'' says Bishop Nerses. ''Humility,'' he says, ''gave the crown to him.''

But isn't there a continual conflict between Christian faith and an avowedly atheistic state?

''It means there is continuous dialogue,'' says the bishop, smiling. ''Silent dialogue.''

''I believe,'' he adds, ''that the world is changing. And we believe the world has to be changed - for the good of mankind.''

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