A Church that is All Business

Posted on February. 12. 2019

October 30 2012


by Denis Donikian

We can often be heard cursing the current leadership in Etchmiadzin.  This probably won’t change for a long time to come, at least until the church stops paying lip service to its intended evangelical message and instead puts this message into action in its everyday thoughts and actions.  My novel *Vidures *describes this phenomenon in detail.  The minute that a spiritual institution gives precedence to the institutional over the spiritual, you can be sure that it has completely distorted its true and proper vocation. And in Armenia, a Christian nation where one constantly repeats the now rather hollowed expression *tsavet danem *(*Let me take your pain from you*) and where a philosophy of every man for himself has completely eclipsed any type of altruistic behavior, it seems somehow sadly fitting that the Church be concerned with money rather than the wellbeing of its flock.

In the current phase of its history this Church, which is dipping its wick in the century’s shithole, can hardly expect to enlighten anyone on the Orthodox faith without either being stupidly blind or blissfully nationalistic. Its parakeets in gold vestments continue to revel in magic and incantatory formulas that people seem to be so fond of, but far from seducing God, all they are really doing is widening the gap from which a strong odor of ethnocentrism emerges.  We rarely see them drag their polished shoes to poor Armenian neighborhoods, for fear that they may have to share the latter’s soup with them.  Instead we see them, standing side-by-side those who have stolen the country’s money, blessing weapons, fruit and newly built constructions, whatever it takes in order to bless money-making concerns. Yesterday it was apricots at the opening of a film festival. And who knows? Tomorrow it may be a Barbie doll at the Miss Armenia competition.  The fall has been so steep. And yet=85

An anecdote. One fine day the director of Etchmiadzin’s affairs has the Caholicos’ car prepared for a trip. Not a Bentley like the one owned by the Archbishop Navasard Kchoyan, who is in charge ofYerevanand the Southern half of Ararat province, no. The South is poor and a Bentley reeks of wealth. And one musn’t show off one’s wealth too much. On the agenda today is a tour of the construction site of the Tatev funicular, as the legitimate owner of the lands where the former is being built. But on the way there, the large right hemisphere of the church’s autocephalic representative, decides to stop along the way and break bread in a local restaurant, where he can mingle with the populace and also cop a free meal along the way in exchange for a papal blessing.  Then he has an even better idea: why not invite the heads of the Italian company actually building the funicular so that they can narrate their progress as he scans the menu. The Italians take their leave=85disheartened: `They say that we complain a lot about our Pope. But compared to yours, he is a Saint.’  Need one say more?

For all that, the Director of business in Antelias, or the Small Left Hemisphere of the autocephalic Apostolic church, isn’t shy about giving out its blessings either.  As long as they bring in some cash.  And for all one knows, perhaps a papal understanding exists between him and his Big Brother in Etchmiadzin in order to build a new church, Sourp Garabed, right in the middle ofLas Vegas, the world gambling capital, the world capital of all sorts of excesses.  Poor Garabed, if only you could see the quagmire that they’ve buried your sainthood in! Little Left Hemisphere has already won the day by consecrating the foundations, probably in the hopes of later pocketing substantial dividends. A sign of the cross – it’s like magic! Even though the church proffers benedictions, it also needs to know how to monetize them in order to keep its standard of living and carry out God’s plan. And financial manna doesn’t fall from heaven with any greater force than inLas Vegas, since money reproduces faster there than bread in the hands of Jesus Christ. In thisDisneylandof cardboard and dollar bills, Sourp Garabed may yet add a lowly touch of Armenianness to this artificial and pompous world, one filled with vile taste and lost souls.

But before this, Big Right Hemisphere, who some mean-spirited anticlerics have renamed The Director of the National and Celestial Bank of Etchmiadzin, had his own ideas about how to profit from the situation.

Otherwise what money would he use to build his branch offices in Yerevan at the crossing of Abovian and Sayat Nova streets. Only one solution came to mind: make off with the European parishes, especially those whose patronage extend to the great banks, casinos, hotels and families.  Like those in Brussels, or Geneva, or why not the one in Nice which is the second oldest Armenian Apostolic church in Franceafter the Cathedral in Paris’ Rue Goujon. Azuredly in this part of the coast, our Director tells himself rubbing his hands together, with the Sun’s help and the cicadias buzzing to their hearts’ content, the Angels will join in and everyone will blindly respect the MotherChurch`that has played such a crucial role in the millennial history of the Armenian people. Hence it is enough for our church to demand completely blind allegiance for their flock to do everything it can to obey without ever revolting. Hence the members of the Nice Cultural Association were expected to simply accept statutes that would be summarily imposed on all parishes and in a way that would devolve all powers (spiritual, political, representative and administrative) to ecclesiastical authorities. During a general assembly, where they did however accept a negotiated compromise, parishioners rejected this proposal, rare Armenians for whom Armeniameans everything but they did not reject every single thing. Since people in high places felt that this outcome was inadequate, they sent the parish a former priest from the parish itself, a certain V.A. whose apostolic duty seemed to lie in him raping all the members of the parish. But one still would have needed to give them a child, that is to say put them at the behest of Etchmiadzin. In the following weeks, this V.A., aided by a few sycophants he had recruited as doormen from the gorilla cage from God knows which public zoo, took on the mantle of some petty little dictator, separating, on Earth as in heaven, those parishioners who were worthy of entering their own church, from the others – which included the President of the cultural association!

And that is how the Nice parish was transformed into a zone where no rights exist. In short, a mini version of Armeniaemptied out of any sense of justice whatsoever, celestial or temporal, and emptied as well of any evangelical compassion, where the average citizen has no choice but to fall to his knees and put him or herself at the mercy of the more powerful.

Master Catholicos, upon being informed of this certain V.A.’s actions pouted and remained perched from in his lofty heights. As for the Primate-who-transmited-information, he declared: `Accept the statutes that we introduced or step down!’  A clear indication of how much one these blessers of apricots really care for their flock!  Moving forward, both V.A. and the primate used every known method of harassment and intimidation – none was too great: sabotage, threats of excommunication, a forced coup d’йtat, insults and even bodily harm and attacks=85In short, they acted like pugilists who enjoyed attacking. Arrests occurred, followed by resignations.  The only response by the Primate to help this now traumatized parish was to appoint a commission to replace the Nice parish council. As a response to all these attacks against it, the latter requested the appointment of an ad hoc administrator from the Nice High Court – Xavier Huertas was thus appointed on July 10th, 2010. As one might imagine, the General Asembly that Huerta organized was not to the Primate’s liking. Then, the Primate’s illegal committee ignored and superseded the Nice court, under the pretext of changing the Nice cultural association’s statutes! In March 2011, the newspaper Nice-Matin got involved in the matter, underlining all of V.A.’s criminal activities in the matter, and during their inquiry revealed that within the Russian mafia there existed an Armenian mafia which was implicated in sordid dealings such as money laundering and high class prostitution. Starting then, the merely shameful turned into the scandalous. The Catholicos’ emissary, father K.K., interrupted a mass so that he could order the parish’s elected treasurer to leave stage area where candles are lit. And then this same K.K. celebrated the Mass of the Nativity in the Catholic church of Saint Peter of Arena rather than Saint Mary’s Armenian Apostolic Church under the pretext that the latter was too small, the real reason being that he then instituted a new cultural association. Since then, father K.K. leaves Saint Mary’s presbytery where he lives, in order to lead Armenian apostolic mass at Saint Phillip’s Catholic Church.  As for the Parish Council, it had to call on Father Sahag all the way from Moscow so that he could officiate at Saint Mary’s, over the objections of the ecclesiastical authorities.

The next visit of the Catholicos of all Armenians will perforce be problematic. But I suppose that the man must have something in mind.  To mollify the most fragile of the parishioners and to present himself as a conciliatory spirit, as a means of reaching his ends.  Either way, in the long run, Etchmiadzin’s strategy is to count on even the most ardent dissidents becoming tired and discouraged, in the hopes that it can deal itself another, more profitable hand.

(One may consult the file on the Armenian Apostolic Church parish of Nice-Cфte-d’Azur on the internet at the following address:*[* http://www.eglisearmeniennenice.org/Dossier_information/index.html.)

Since the new statutes were meant to be imposed on all Apostolic Armenian European parishioners, anywhere that lay people sought to avoid the Etchmiadzinification of the parish and conserve a minimum amount of autonomy, explosive situations broke out. In Brussels and Geneva, for example, the exact same things occurred as sin Nice, although on a less excessive scale. Until then the Ecclesiastical Assembly of Geneva was simply following the traditions and rules of the Church which had been for centuries based on a  democratic process.  In this tradition, the lay Assembly decides on its system of organization, including its institutions, finances and the role of its priest. But in its desire to impose the Diocese in the entire diaspora, the Catholicos sought to impose his sole authority everywhere. And so thanks to the Vehapar, after numerous exchanges, parishioners in Geneva were deprived of the services of their priest who was abusively defrocked, as well as of their ability to choose, their right to organize, of its attachй in Etchmiadzin. Today they are deeply disillusioned and worried about the absence of charity, tolerance and compassion that this incident has revealed; disillusioned as well by a Church empty of any spiritual values, and by a pontiff who has forgotten that he was elected in order to act as the Catholicos of all Armenians.

One can accept that the Mother Church would like to impose a certain statuary unity to all of the diaspora’s churches. But shouldn’t it have prepared such change in consultation with the lay members of the church? In fact the differences, not to say the hostility, that exists between the Catholicos and the parishioners in the diaspora can be explained by cultural differences. The lay people in Geneva, Brussels, Nice and elsewhere, although they are all Armenian, have a different mindset from Armenians in Armenia proper.  If one’s Apostolic faith transcends all other differences, each person’s presence in the world is unique due to one’s history, geographic location, and one’s adopted culture. 

Given this fact, the Church would have been wiser to keep its own cultural prerogatives to itself and let the lay people define and form the cultural aspects of their religion. Today these same lay people find themselves commanded to give up their identities, their church locales – everything that they and their parents built up themselves. Given this fact, resistance was inevitable. To the extent that lay and religious people form one organic whole, the roles that each play should be mutually respected. Seeing the intensity of resistance, it seems that the same lay people would soon be enlisting the help of those lawyers for religious rights to restore their faith.

It is now apparent that a transitory period was needed in order to dialogue and divide up roles. Instead, it seems that the Church had decided to take over all powers and reduce practitioners to complete submission, transforming the latter into a virtue.

However under the guise of an apparent normalization of all parishes, which one might understand, one detects hidden intentions of the most purely political nature.  These are tantamount to the transfer of power and goods from the lay to the religious. In other words, nothing has changed. The Church seems to be playing the same tune as the Armenian state when the latter believes that the diaspora must remain submitted, mute and inert with no influence whatsoever on Armenia, except as a source of financial manna. When one knows that the Church does all it can not to contradict the State, and does even less to bring up its terrible treatment of the poor in Armenia, it is because the relationship between the two institutions goes beyond collusion to the point that they exchange one favor for another. You authorize me to teach religion in schools, I will move into your diaspora parishes in order to help manage your goods. In fact, all of these stories demonstrate that the Armenian State, by using the Church and soon by manipulating information itself, is attempting to control the diaspora, or at the very least to divide it in order to conquer it. For Armenia’s great fear is that the Diaspora will one day be organized enough to influence its own decisions. Hence the representatives of the Armenian church in Europe would one day become channels to transmit and relay the wishes of the Armenian state. Once this happens, the rising critics of the country’s disastrous management will no longer be able to express themselves freely. Impeded as they will be by the voice of the Armenian church – parishioners will have only one choice – to shut up.

But the saddest part of all of this lies in the complete disarray that parishioners find themselves in. Their suffering is but the reflection of the church’s pathology. Torn between a love of their church and the pathetic behavior of its representatives, between their faith and the political ends that their religion is being used for, they no longer recognize themselves within the context of their nation or within its religious institution which behaves like a monarchy of divine right by dictating to all its codes of behavior under threat of expulsion.  Those who thought that their Church would teach the compassion that is so cruelly missing today in Armenia will have instead witnessed with their own eyes its cupidity and intolerance unleashed. They will have witnessed a priest who is the leader of a violent gang. Another who interrupts his mass under the guise of a punishment in order to scold a parishioner assigned to sell candles, as if the latter were a temple merchant. Because what one can see in no other church in the world, one can witness in ours! A picture to bring tears of blood to Christ’s eyes.

P.S. 1): It would be wrong to accuse us by reducing the contents of this article to a systematic attack and belittling of the Armenian Apostolic Church. We recognize without a shadow of a doubt the immense amount of work that it has accomplished throughout the course of Armenian history in order to maintain its unity and spirituality within often hostile conditions. But one must also recognize, all evidence to the contrary, that its political function has overtaken its initial vocation and that today it finds itself in complete contradiction with its mission.  The proliferation of sects in Armenia will suffice to prove our point.

2) Out of respect for our reader, we hesitated before posting this text. Because it is not hard to see that what we observed in the Nice parish has some shades of grey to it. In that affair, no one was safe from the

multiple and insidious manipulations that led to the current situation. Beginning with the manipulators themselves. Since we could not investigate on the spot, we cannot claim to have been completely thorough in our coverage. But the spirit of the events at hand has been completely respected.

3) The CCAF’s call to welcome the Catholicos during his upcoming trip to the Nice region demonstrates that this organization is acting within its usual role when it stigmatizes parishioners in order to respect a certain idea of the Armenian state. Just as I am acting within mine when I defend a certain notion of human rights. For the CCAF, which worries about the cultural and religious sights with rotten luck, the Armenian church represents first and foremost a historical and nationalistic institution.In this way, one should help it to bring people together by rejecting all those who might divide it. And no one has any idea by what sleight of hand usually peaceful parishioners should have becomes crazed fomenters of discord within their own community. Yet the Armenian Church as it exists today elicits feelings ranging from respect to suffering. Respect when it comes to its eminent role in past Armenian history. Suffering when one witnesses how it treats its illuminatory vocation today. By seeking to reject any divisions within the diaspora, the church seeks to impose its own influence.  But its lack of exemplariness, not to mention its indifference to saintliness, are not without  consequences. To begin with, it falls into the hands of other, competing religions. By losing ground inArmenia and the diaspora, it is the Armenian nation which disintegrates.

And the CCAF, obsessed by a legitimate desire for unity which it confused with uniformity, in truth acts against the church’s bets interests. In short, by letting the Catholicos exert his power over a part of the

Armenian community, the CCAF also acts against the diaspora itself. Starting with itself. Because soon, after the creation of the Ministry of the Diaspora whose goals are blurry, servants of doubtful intentions, and a Church that acts in a Totalitarian manner, other emissaries of the state will arrive to complete their work and spread their influence and rigidity.

Today it is in the realm of the religious. But tomorrow it will be in the realm of information. Trying by way of propaganda to manipulate, counteract or torpedo this same CCAF’s aspirations to become a united political power.

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