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Election of Catholicos Armenia 1999

By MTh. Rev. Michael Westh,
Yerevan 25. October 1999 20.30 (+0500 Armenian Daylight Time)

Soon it will be decided who is to be elected the absolute head of the
Armenian Apostolic Church. Two questions have been important in the
previous debate, be it in the media or be it among ordinary people and
believers, namely the claimed intervention of the government in the
election process and the claimed lack of unity among the clerics in
the top leadership of the Church. Thus, so far the government has been
able to point out its favorite candidate, whereas the Church herself
has not been able to do so.

What concerns the governmental interference, it is hardly surprising
to anyone here that the government has expressed its opinion on the
upcoming church election. In Armenia as well as in the other CIS
countries, "expression of opinion" is equal to trying to influence as
much as possible the outcome of the process in question, in this case
the election of the Catholicos of All Armenians.

What concerns the claimed lack of unity in the leadership of the
Armenian Church, this is a much more complex question. The Armenian
Church is not segmented into 'theological' parties like in many
Protestant Churches in the West. Instead it is a question of
personality, difference in practical management, clerical style, and
difference in the number and the nature of contacts with governmental
and financial circles here and abroad.

The Government 'interfered' in the elections in 1995 when Karekin I
was elected catholicos. Despite the fact that a majority within the
Church recognized him as the best candidate, it soon became difficult
for His Holiness to win the acceptance of the people and completely
realize his program. The reason was that he was soon pernceived as
the 'candidate of the Government'. To this can be added that the
president at that time, Levon Ter-Petrossian's popularity had already
peaked and within a couple of years he was overthrown.

The special thing about this particular election is that a growing
bitterness against governmental interference has emerged from within
the Church' leadership, since a majority of top clerics did not agree
that the Government's candidate was the best one. Around October 1,
1999, six archbishops (of whom two were patriarchs) released a
document of protest intended for the Government, but at the same time
the document indirectly failed to appreciate the Government's

Over the last week or so, an increasing number of sources state that
another 30 or 31 bishops and archbishops agree with the intention in
the released document. If this is so, it means that 36-37 of the 49
highest ranking clergy may gather around one single alternative
candidate, and thus the election tomorrow may become a choice between
only two candidates.

The Government's favorite candidate is archbishop Karekin Nersessian
(49 years old), bishop of the Ararat Diocese with Yerevan as its
center. So far, only this one candidate has been announced as of today,
October 25.  A possible alternative candidate supported by a majority
of senior clergy may thus be announced tomorrow right before or
during the first sitting of the electing body. Meanwhile, the 49
bishops, archbishops and patriarchs gathered today.

Tomorrow they will gather along with delegates of the National Church
Council. This council comprises of 400 delegates from all the dioceses
in Armenia and the Diaspora chosen only for this particular election
of catholicos.

At first, the senior clergy of the church together with the National
Church Council will meet and check out all practical matters connected
to the arrival, absence and substitutes of the delegates. Then it will
be announced who are the candidates for the office of catholicos.
Finally, first round of the election will begin, ballot papers will be
given and the ballot box will be in the room. This whole process will
take place in the Cathedral of St. Etchmiadzin proper and behind
closed doors. In order to be announced catholicos after the first
round, the candidate must gain minimum 50% of the votes plus one
vote. If this does not happen, that is to say, if there are more than
two candidates in the first round, the voting process in principle
will continue until one of the candidates gain the necessary majority.

When the votes are registered and the catholicos has been elected, the
doors of the Cathedral will be opened and the name of the new
catholicos will be announced while the chimes of St. Etchmiadzin will
start ringing. This could happen late tomorrow Tuesday 26. Oct. or the
day after tomorrow, but it depends on the number of election rounds.

Sunday 1 November 1999 at the Holy Liturgy in the Cathedral, the
catholicos will be enthroned. During the Liturgy, he will be anointed
with holy Myron, as in the case of consecration of priests and
bishops.  However, unlike the consecration of priests and bishops,
where some drops are applied on the forehead and hands, a larger
amount of Myron is poured out on the head of the new catholicos. Then
follows the position of hands of the patriarchs, archbishops and

Most likely, the church will be crowded with specially invited guests
and friends of the Armenian Apostolic Church from Armenia and abroad,
representatives of sister churches governments, embassies and
different organizations.

Rev. Michael Westh is a Danish missionary who has lived in Armenia
for the last 5 years and was closely associated with Vehapar
Karekin I. He may be reached at: or

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