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The Critical Corner - 12/21/2004

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Why we should read...

"The Armenian Church at the Crossroads of the 18th Century Armenian
     Liberation Movement" by Armen Aivazian
(344pp, Yerevan, Armenia, 2003)

Armenian News Network / Groong
January 21, 2004

By Eddie Arnavoudian

The Armenian National Liberation and the Armenian Church

The Armenian Church has had a deservedly bad reputation having been,
through the centuries, a rather poor guardian of the real interests of
its flock. But as with the sections of the French Church during the
French Revolution, or the 1960s Catholic Church in Latin America,
sections of the Armenian Church also produced individuals and groups
who made outstanding contributions to the Armenian people's history.
Armen Aivazian's is a study of such a case, one that, albeit fraught
with the risk of exonerating the Church as a whole, opens up new and
exciting territory for those interested in Armenian history.

Scrutinising often neglected primary sources, Aivazian argues that in
the 18th century national movement a faction of the Armenian Church in
Etchmiadzin, its historic centre, played an active, energetic and at
certain points leading role that was however always consciously and
extremely secretive.  His account hinges on an exciting detective like
investigation of a claim, that clerical laws dating back to the 12th
century dictated that a successful candidate to head the all-Armenian
Church required a unanimous vote involving all the important Eastern
Armenian bishoprics.

This 'rule' about the elections of Catholicos, Aivazian shows, was
actually adopted sometime in the first 10 years of 1700 but was graced
with a much earlier origin by its formulators in order to give it the
weight and legitimacy of ancient and glorious tradition. It was
adopted in particular to secure the election of a Catholicos from the
eastern bishoprics. Being the more nationalist orientated section of
the Armenian Church, they were intent on preventing the Patriarchate
in Istanbul from imposing on Etchmiadzin someone who would be their
stooge and by extension a lackey of the Ottoman power. This eastern
struggle against Istanbul had another dimension too - resistance to
the Catholic conversion carried out by the Mekhitarists and the
Antonian monks among others, who were regarded as a threat to the
independence of the Armenian Church and to the prospects of Armenian

Aivaizian makes a convincing case to show that the almost endemic
division and conflict between the Constantinople/Cilician wing of the
Armenian Church and its religious centres in eastern Armenia were more
than theological disputes about the future of the Church, its dogma
and its relations to Catholicism and Rome. The Constantinople/Cilician
Church leadership, subordinated to the Ottoman Empire, sought at the
behest of the Ottoman power to secure its own reliable candidate to
head the Church apparatus based at Etchmiadzin. It and Ottoman
imperial authority distrusted the eastern Armenian parishes and
prelacies regarding them as obstreperous and involved in supporting
anti-Turkish Armenian military operations in aid of Russian

There is substance to the argument. The Patriarch in Constantinople
was far removed from the realities, needs, conditions and influences
of the native Armenian lands. Integrated within the heart of the
Empire and enjoying a degree of privilege, it was not responsive or
open to the strivings and pressure from the ranks of Armenian
society. In contrast the eastern parishes in Datev, Etchmiadzin, Julfa
and elsewhere were within native Armenia. Furthermore by virtue of
their proximity to the Tsarist Empire, they were in a position to
conceive of and try to develop alliances to be rid of Ottoman rule
that they regarded as the greater enemy.

The case for a more actively nationalist wing of the Church is
strengthened by the fact that as the major, and in fact the only,
enduring powerful national institution it was bound to be involved in
diverse ways in the fortunes and lives of an Armenian nation and
people buffeted between the imperial policies and domestic repressions
of the Ottoman, Tsarist and Persian states. Whether as willing or
unwilling agents for foreign rule, or as a force tempering or
resisting such rule, or seeking to tactically adjust itself so as to
secure the best advantage, the jurisdiction of the Armenian Church
always involved more than the business of spiritual salvation. It was
always an intensely political institution with a complex internal
structure, a domestic and even something akin to a foreign policy
through the medium of which it sought to balance and manoeuvre in
relation to foreign powers and organise its administration and
governance of its own fiefdom all with a view to protecting its own
status and power vis-`-vis the state.

It is in this context that political questions, among them those of
national liberation and political freedom, were forced upon its
agenda. It could not remain indifferent to the altering balance of
forces between the three empires jousting for dominance in Armenian
territories. It needed to calculate, evaluate and develop a strategy
and orientation that suited its own interests best. Thus it was
ineluctably drawn into the political conflicts and ambitions of the
day, with different wings of the Church adopting different attitudes
and strategies. With regard to the 18th century, Aivazian demonstrates
the eastern Church leadership's relationship to and role in the 1720s
Armenian insurrectionary movement.

A particularly exciting moment in the volume is the account of Lazar
Chahagetzi's role in the origin of modern Armenian nationalism.
Catholicos in Etchmiadzin from 1737 to 1751 and representative of
early Armenian nationalism, his reputation needs to be salvaged from
decades of malign evaluations that followed his nationalist opposition
to the Catholic Church. Remarking on Chahagetzi's referral back to the
brilliant Krikor Datevatzi from the late 14th century, Aivazian argues
that Datevatzi represented a certain type of medieval nationalism
which Chahagetzi both inherited and developed. Datevatzi, for example,
lists 10 particularities that define or distinguish some form of
Armenian identity.  Chahagetzi offers no less than 50, significantly
adding the factors of language and land as foremost in his list. In
developing his vision of the Armenian nation Chahagetzi also referred
to classical Armenian Kings and royalty, generals and fighters - both
secular and religious.

Unearthing the contribution of Church to the 18th century liberation
struggle, Aivazian makes a note of the movement's breadth and depth.
There is evidence that beyond Artsakh/Karabagh and Siunik/Kapan, the
movement's organisers also attempted to secure armed rebellion in
parts of western, Ottoman occupied Armenia.  Aivazian thus suggests
the existence, albeit in inchoate form, of a broad pan-national
movement, one in which the Church and its leadership, at least in
Etchmiadzin, played an important supporting and sometimes leading
role. This interesting and possibly very significant thesis deserves
further consideration.

A potential problem that lurks in Aivazian's book surfaces clearly in
a concluding chapter.  He argues that from the XV-XVIII centuries the
Church, through its cultural, educational and ideological work,
shouldered the task of preserving a semblance of Armenian nationhood.
This argument has of course an element of truth - in so far as it
refers not to the Church as a whole but to a segment of it, and in so
far as it is qualified by reference to the fact that the Church was
not representative of the Armenian people as a whole. One needs to
note the almost feudal structure of the Church whose privileged estate
rested upon the labour of the Armenian peasant and serf, to whose
fortunes the Church was hardly responsive or sympathetic.  Whilst
noting any positive contribution, it is wise to recall the Church's
widespread defence of obscurantist and backward custom and tradition
that was compounded by corruption and general philistinism.  Armen
Aivazian is of course conscious of such corruption and indeed devotes
some 25 pages to considering the corrupt Catholicos Nahapet Yedesatzi.

Making any broader or generalised statement about the Church opens a
hornet's nest of questions. Among them being a demand for an
explanation of the 19th century revolt against the Church and its
authority, both in the east and the west, by outstanding thinkers such
as Mikael Nalpantian and Haroutyoun Sevajian and many others. Such
reservations aside, Aivazian has done a fine job sifting through
apparently trivial, purely theological or bureaucratic Church
documents and letters to throw light on the different political trends
within the Armenian Church, especially as they related to the struggle
between the power centres of Bolis and Etchmiadzin. He has not only
salvaged the reputation of some honourable Churchmen, but has made an
important contribution to the history of the Armenian liberation

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature.  His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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