Armenia Apostolic Church on Good Terms with Rome

Interview with Patriarch Karekin II

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ETCHMIADZIN, Armenia, SEPT. 20, 2001 (ZENIT.orgAvvenire).- Last touches are being given to the Apostolic Palace of the patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, where John Paul II will stay during his Sept. 25-27 visit.

This is the first time that the Pope will reside on the premises of an Eastern Church — which speaks volumes about Armenia´s cordiality toward Catholicism.

The Armenian Church is Eastern but not Orthodox. It separated from Rome much earlier, after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, whose conclusions it did not accept. This resulted in historical misunderstandings over its alleged monophysitism, the heresy that attributes only one nature to Christ. A 1996 joint declaration, signed by John Paul II and Patriarch Karekin I, put an end to the misunderstanding.

Etchmiadzin, some 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Yerevan, the capital, is like an Armenian Vatican, whose heart is the old cathedral. Karekin II is the Catholicos elected in 1999 by the general assembly of Armenians, with the support of the diaspora in America.

Karekin II, 50, with a young face and gray beard, is known as a great organizer. He has just returned from the capital, where the new cathedral is being built for the celebrations in his country, which this Sunday will commemorate 17 centuries since the official adoption of Christianity.

«We are recovering from delays, but everything will be ready for that day,» the patriarch said.

Q: With what feelings are you preparing to receive John Paul II in Armenia?

Karekin II: With immense joy, so much the greater as we know the Pope of Rome wished to make this visit to my predecessor, Karekin I, called to the Father´s House in those days, two years ago.

Relations between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Roman Catholic Church entered a new phase with him, marked by great cordiality and friendship. I went to the Vatican last year with this spirit, and I now prepare to receive John Paul II in my house. I consider it providential that his much-awaited visit coincides with the jubilee celebrations of Christianity in Armenia.

Q: Your fellow countrymen are proud to be the first Christian nation in history. Of what significance is this in today´s society?

Karekin II: It is a beautiful thing, but above all, it is a task: we must live the faith in the effort of each day and transform it into action.

Seventy years of atheism have imposed a separation between faith, reduced to ritual enclosed in a building for worship, and life. Because of this, the Church has a great job to do.

Q: Does this mean that, for an Armenian, Christianity is no longer something natural, as it was in the past?

Karekin II: No. No son of the Armenian nation is so considered if he has not been introduced in the baptismal font of our Church. Even under the Soviet regime, this feeling never diminished. People would strike their breast and say: Here, on the right, I have the Party card, but on the left, my heart beats with the Church.

What has been lacking has been the possibility of religious education. After the fall of Communism, our main effort was to form a new clergy, new catechists and teachers. Our seminaries are full; there is no lack of priestly vocations.

Q: Relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox of Moscow are very difficult. In your opinion, how can the dialogue be renewed?

Karekin II: I am convinced that the desire for unity, in keeping with Christ´s mandate, has not diminished in our sister Churches. We must build the dialogue on reciprocal respect and fraternal love. We pray for it, and we work so that misunderstanding will end and the unity of all Christians will be achieved.

Before John Paul II´s visit, we will celebrate the jubilee, together with representatives of 25 Churches and religious confessions, among them Patriarch Alexy of Moscow and Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, who will head the delegation of the Catholic Church. The meeting will be the occasion to weld our fraternal relations.

Q: Yours has always been a frontier Church, bulwark of Christianity in Muslim Asia. The latest tragic events in the United States have caused the confrontation between the West and Islam to arise again. What is your judgment?

Karekin II: From the geographical point of view, Armenia is bordered by Muslim countries. However, from the spiritual point of view, many things have changed, and it would be a grave error, allowing oneself to be carried away by emotions, to think of a religious war of a global character between the Christian West and the Muslim world.

Many Armenian Christian communities live in Arab countries without problems. We have regular meetings with Muslim religious leaders from Iran and Azerbaijan. We have also invited them to our jubilee celebrations.

Q: Will they come?

Karekin II: We have not had a reply yet, but I hope so.

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