The Armenian Church is an independent Christian church, also known as the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church. Its head is the Catholicos, who resides at Holy Etchmiadzin, near Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.
Christianity was declared the state religion of Armenia in AD 301. Armenia thus became the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion. This was largely due to the efforts of St. Gregory the Illuminator. Born a nobleman, he converted Armenia's king Tiridates III, who had formerly persecuted the Christians. Conversion of the rest of the population soon followed. It was St. Gregory who built the Mother Church at Etchmiadzin in AD 303.
Until the 5th century, Christian worship in Armenia was conducted in Greek or Syriac, since there was no Armenian alphabet, hence no written language. In AD 404, St. Mesrob (at that time a monk) completed an alphabet of 36 letters. His objective was to translate the Bible into Armenian, and the golden age of classical Armenian literature began shortly thereafter.
Persia reduced Armenia to vassaldom and in AD 450 issued a decree ordering all Christians to embrace the Zoroastrian religion. The Armenians, under Prince Vartan Mamigonian, rose in revolt. This culminated in the Battle of Avarayr. Vartan lost the battle, but under the leadership of his nephew, Vahan, the Armenians continued the war for 30 years. They won a decisive victory through a peace accord in AD 484, and Armenian Christianity survived. St. Vartan Day-which is celebrated in February of each year-commemorates the battle and is a major Armenian holiday.
The Armenian Church has traditionally maintained two patriarchates: one in Jerusalem and another in Istanbul. In Jerusalem, the Armenian Patriarchate is the guardian of the Holy Places in the possession of the Armenians. It is also one of the three principal custodians of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other important shrines and sanctuaries in the Holy Land. The Patriarchate of Constantinople serves a community of approximately 50,000 Armenians living in Istanbul.
Holy Etchmiadzin remains the central spiritual authority for millions of Armenian Christians living in diaspora communities around the globe. In recent years, the Armenian Church has taken an active role in the ecumenical dialogue among the clergy of all faiths.
The Church entered its most recent era of leadership on October 27, 1999, when Armenian Christians elected His Holiness Karekin II as the 132nd Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, pontiff of the worldwide Armenian Church. He succeeded the deceased Catholicos Karekin I, who died in late June 1999 after leading the church for 4 years.
The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin is the pre-eminent center of authority in the worldwide Armenian Apostolic Church. Located near the capital of Yerevan in the Republic of Armenia, it is composed of (a) the Mother Cathedral of the entire Armenian Church; (b) a monastery and monastic brotherhood; (c) the residence of the Catholicos of All Armenians; and (d) various religious and cultural institutions, such as the Kevorkian Theological Seminary and a museum.
The cathedral dates back to the 4th century, and is reckoned the oldest Christian cathedral in world. Although the current sanctuary was erected in the 1600s, remnants of the 4th-century altar have been unearthed beneath the present structure.
In its capacity as the residence of the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos (the pontiff of the Armenian Church) of All Armenians, Holy Etchmiadzin is known as the Catholicate of All Armenians. It became the seat of the Catholicate of the entire Armenian nation in the 4th century, following the conversion of King Tiridates III to Christianity by St. Gregory the Illuminator in ad 301.
According to the chronicler Agathangelos, soon after Armenias conversion to Christianity, St. Gregory had a vision of the Son of God. Appearing as a heroic figure of light surrounded by a mighty angelic host, Christ struck the ground with a golden hammer, indicating the place where the Mother Cathedral of the new Christian nation was to be established. The name Etchmiadzinliterally, where the Only Begotten descendedrefers to this episode.
Gregory was formally designated as the supreme head of the Church, and was sent to Caesarea to be ordained a bishop. He thus became the first in an unbroken line of 131 catholicoi (or universal bishops) of the Armenian Church. He built the first Christian cathedral in Vagharshapat, near Mount Ararat, then the capital of Armenia. Having accomplished his mission and advanced in age, he then retired from active life to live as a hermit until his death.
Source: Armenian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
The renaissance of the Armenians at the start of the nineteenth century, after "the deep sleep of bondage and degradation," was possible only because the Armenian Church, the depository of patriotism and faith, had preserved the old culture. It was the church which revived and protected "the soul of the Armenian people while waiting for the day of resurrection."
Source: "The Armenians - History of a Genocide" By Yves Ternon
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