A Tale of Three Cities

Rev. Dr. Vrej Nersessian is a senior priest of the Armenian Apostolic Church and holds a doctorate in theology from King's College, London. He is a world authority on the Christian Middle East. Rev. Nersessian is the author of a number of significant works on Armenian Christian art and Christianity. He was born in Iran (1948), educated at Martasiragan Djemaran of Calcutta, and at Echmiadzin. Subsequently he moved to London where he became the curator of the Christian Middle East Section at the British Library, a position that he held for many years.

Rev. Dr. Vrej Nerses Nersessian, 7 December 2014

On the website of the Catholicosate of Holy Echmiadzin is a communique  concerning the recent episcopal gathering, in which representatives from the dioceses from around the world had allegedly tabled the motion to demote the Patriarchates of Jerusalem and Constantinople to the status of dioceses of a sort.

Rev. Dr. Vrej Nersessian is a senior priest of the Armenian Apostolic Church and holds a doctorate in theology from King's College, London. He is a world authority on the Christian Middle East. Rev. Nersessian is the author of a number of significant works on Armenian Christian art and Christianity. He was born in Iran (1948), educated at Martasiragan Djemaran of Calcutta, and at Echmiadzin. Subsequently he moved to London where he became the curator of the Christian Middle East Section at the British Library, a position that he held for many years.

Rev. Dr. Vrej Nerses Nersessian, 7 December 2014

On the website of the Catholicosate of Holy Echmiadzin is a communique  concerning the recent episcopal gathering, in which representatives from the dioceses from around the world had allegedly tabled the motion to demote the Patriarchates of Jerusalem and Constantinople to the status of dioceses of a sort.

The abolishing of the Patriarchal status of Jerusalem and Constantinople is not in the remit of Holy Echmiadzin or the synod of Armenian Archbishops. Both these institutions have universal and international status recognized and validated by international treaties.

From the presence of Armenians in Jerusalem and Constantinople  Christianity spread into Armenia before the emergence of St. Gregory and King Drtad. A document attributed to an Armenian monk named Anastas Vardabed  lists seventy monasteries and churches owned by Armenians  in Jerusalem prior to the 7th century. In the mid-5th century the Armenians had founded a scriptorium in Jerusalem, which also emerged as an important intellectual centre, where significant number of religious, canonical, and patristic texts were translated into Armenian. The Armenian lectionary used in Armenian churches is a translation from the Greek; the liturgy celebrated in the Armenian Church is that of St James’ translated into Armenian from the Greek as it was celebrated in the Holy City in the 5th century. In 2008, Prof. Abraham Terian published a study called Macarius of Jeruslaem,  Letter to the Armenians, AD 335 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press & St. Nerses Armenian Seminary, New York). The  letter was penned by Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, who had been commissioned by Emperor Constantine to oversee the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And it is in answer to queries by the newly-established Armenian Church regarding Baptism and the Eucharist. The document is dated to 335, a little over 30 years after Armenia adopted Christianity as a state religion. The presence of several mosaics with Armenian inscriptions, some the earliest evidence of the use of the Armenian alphabet outside Armenia, are the most reliable evidence of the presence of Armenians in the Holy Land. The inscription on a mosaic found in the apse of the 6th century funerary chapel in the Musrara Quarter of Jerusalem has the inscription “To the memory and salvation of all Armenians whose names are known to the Lord ”. This is an inscription for the memories of those thousands of Armenians who made pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

When the Arabs conquered the Holy Land in 638, the Armenian See of Jerusalem obtained a stature which equaled the Greek Patriarchate. When  Saladin occupied Jerusalem in 1187, as an avowed enemy of the Latins and the Greeks, Saladin found it expedient to endow the Armenians of the Holy Land privileges as custodian of the Holy Places. This happened during the incumbency of the Armenian Patriarch Apraham (1180-91). The small Armenian community of Jerusalem, comprising some five-hundred monks and a thousand families, were granted a charter guaranteeing the community’s security and freedom of worship throughout the entire domain, as well as the integrity of its possessions and prerogatives in the Holy Places. The status quo of the Holy Places, as enunciated in the 1850s and reconfirmed time and again in subsequent years, was the sum of a historical evolution, whose beginnings are traceable to the early centuries of Christianity. The privileges and rights of the Armenian Patriarchate, along with those of the Latin and Greek Patriarchates, were reaffirmed in the Paris Peace Conference in 1856, and at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. The Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II ‘the Red Sultan’ is the instigator of a firman on 25 July 1888, coinciding with the incumbency of the Armenian Patriarch Haroutiwn Vehapedian (1885-1910), which re-affirmed the supreme authority of the Armenian Patriarch over all the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, once again and his seat in Jerusalem was declared  "the seat of the Armenian Patriarchate of  the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Gaza, Tripoli, Nablus, of the Ethiopians, the Copts and other nationals’. This firman meant that the Armenian Patriarch enjoyed the full protection of the Sublime Porte and acquired full legal independence. The rights of the Armenian Patriarchate were also protected by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. During the period of Turkish Occupation of Palestine St James’ thrived well under the Ottoman rule. This has been due, on the one hand, to the influence of the Armenian amiras in Constantinople at the Sublime Porte, and on the other, to the Turkish policy of ‘keeping the balance of power’ between the Greek and Latin communities in Jerusalem. It is ironic that the ‘Red Sultan’ had recognized  the importance of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem within the realm of the Ottoman Empire. The demotion of the Patriarchate to a ‘diocese of a sort’ will be much welcomed by Israel and it would be a catastrophic blow to the standing of Christianity in the Middle East.

Palestine that had formerly been governed under the British Mandatory authority, which had brought a modicum of order to the region, withdrew in May 1948 after the creation of the State of Israel. Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan prepared a memorandum addressed to Dr. Ralf Bunch, director of the United Nations Trusteeship Council, on the possibility of implementing an earlier decision of the UN General Assembly, whereby Jerusalem and its environs would be designated as an “international zone”. Archbishop Nersoyan ‘memorandum’ gives a judicious history of the patriarchate and its role in the running of the Holy Places and took part in the three Geneva discussions, advocating  the case for the Jerusalem Brotherhood to be  allocated a single voting right  in the Administrative Council of the Holy Places  [Tiran Nersoyan (1904-1989)[See Documents for the history of the Armenian Church, Holy Echmiadzin, 2004, pp.305-08].

Millions of Armenian Christians have gone to Jerusalem, walked the walk their Lord walked from Bethlehem to Golgotha fulfilling their Christian duty of supporting the convent by a gift of a manuscript, a chalice, a lantern, set of luxurious vestments, curtains which were the ‘place of memory’ for themselves and the future generations, recalling the words of the prophet ‘Blessed is he with a child in Zion’. Patriarch Gregory the Chainbearer of Jerusalem (1715-1749)  and Yovhannes Kolot, Patriach of Constantinople (1678-1741) forged an alliance between Jerusalem and Constantinople to save Jerusalem for the Armenian Church of today.  Thousands of orphans from the Turkish Genocide found shelter in the Convent of St James’ and some of whom became the most prominent religious and intellectual leaders of the Armenian Church of the 20th century. The founder of the Theological Seminary of Armash raised a whole generation of learned primates who steered the Armenian Church through its most difficult period among them Maghakia Ormanian (1841-1918), Papken Guleserian (1868-1936), Eghishe Tourian (1921-30), Torkom Koushagian (1931-39), Mesrob Nshanian (1939-44), Gyuregh Israyelian (1944-49), Tiran Nersoyan (1904- 1989), and Eghishe Derderian (1960-1990 ). In a poem called Meknoghneroun (The Departed) the poet-patriarch very movingly remembers the names of those orphans ‘who walked through the sands of the desert from ‘Van to Salmast, to Nahr Omar, while others like drops of tears fell silently, with thousand dreams’.

After the Sovietization of Armenia the entire dioceses outside the Motherland were cared for my members of St James’ Brotherhood–Archbishops Serovpe Manougian, Sion Manougian, Bsak Toumayan, Shnorhk Kaloustian, Mampre Kalfayan, Papken Varzhapedian, Haigazoun Abrahamian, Asoghig Ghazarian, Tiran Nersoyan, Torkom Manougian, and presently  Khajak Barsamian. The first clergy from Holy Echmiadzin to hold a position in the Diaspora were the late Archbishops Arsen Berberian and Nerses Bozapalian in the Diocese of Great Britain after the 1965s. For this alone Holy Echmiadzian and the Armenian Nation must be eternally grateful. While the See of Cilicia disowned Holy Echmiadzin the Brotherhood of Jerusalem remained steadfastly faithful to Holy Echmiadzin and performed every task it was requested to perform by catholicoses in Holy Echmiadzin.

The proposed Constitution for the Armenian Church was in the processes of making during the incumbency of the Catholicos Vazken Ist with the participation of Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan, the greatest canonist of the Armenian Church, next to academician Vazken Hakobyan. Archbishop Nersoyan was a reluctant participant in the formulation of the Constitution   for he knew  ‘the Armenian Church, as all other ancient mainline Churches, both western and Eastern, ought to be governed by canon law, not a constitution’ [Hagop Nersoyan, Remarks on a proposed constitution for the Armenian Church, Jerusalem,2001]. From the earliest times the Church has governed its affairs by canon laws and has avoided going down the path of constitutional rigidity for several reasons. Constitutions were adopted in exceptional cases in very particular situation  like the National Constitution of the Armenians in effect in Constantinople in 1863 or the Polozhenye  in 1836 in Tsarist Russia, which reduced the Armenian Church into a department of religious affairs within a  large body of what may be described as the National Administration. Both these Constitutions were adopted or forced on the Armenian Church in order to facilitate its dealings with two particular states–Tsarist Russia and Ottoman Turkey. It is impossible to formulate a single constitution to govern various dioceses located in various countries with incompatible rules and regulations. If the Church does formulate such a Constitution, it will be condemned to remain futile words tossed into the air and will be more damaging than beneficial [Եթէ եկեղեցին այնուամենայնիւ հաստատէ  այդպիսի «Սահմանադրութիւն», այն դատապարտուած է մնալու օդին մէջ խօսք եւ դառնալու աւելի վնասակար քան թէ օգտակար] (Tiran Nersoyan, Documents p.527). This clear warning has come to pass.  He makes this criticism in a very long  letter  dated 28th July 1962 to His Holiness Vazken Ist, who had sent him a draft of the Constitution for his observation (Documents on the History of the Armenian Church. Document no.212-213, pp. 460- 480; no. 238, pp.518-558, dated July 28th 1959 and 29th July 1962). For the purposes of this communication I will only highlight a few selected observations that have direct bearing on the subject of my essay.

Clause 84 (p.477).’ ‘[The Catholicos ] has complete authority on the administration of the Armenian Church’ [Նա լիակատար իշխանութիւն ունի Հայ եկեղեցւոյ վարչութեան վրայ]. This assertion is undefined and does not correspond to reality. Anyone writing history should not confuse desirability with reality.

Clause 85 (p.478). There is a degree of papal style authoritarianism [պապականութիւն կը թելադրէ] creeping around the person of the Catholicos. It is more appropriate to say ‘the unity of the Armenian Church is safeguarded by the canonical authority of the Catholicos as head of the Episcopal order’ [Հայ եկեղեցու միութիւնը կ՝ապահովուի Կաթողիկոսի կանոնական վերին իշխանութեամբ՝  ի գլուխ եպիսկոպոսական դասուն].

Armenian Church’s second universally recognized Armenian community with a patriarch as its head is the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople. The third canon of the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople held in 381 established Constantinople’s place of honor in the ecclesiastical hierarchy right after Rome. The Council of Chalcedon held in 451 confirmed the precedence of Constantinople over the Patriarchates of Antioch and Alexandria and its jurisdiction over all of Asia Minor. The Armenian presence in Constantinople has contributed to the cultural and material wealth of the imperial city since the reign of Emperor Constantine. The Armenian historian Agathangeghos in his History of the Armenians describes a visit by the fourth century King Drtad of Armenia and St. Saint Gregory to Constantine I, after they became Christian rulers (H.Bartikyan, Dashants Tought [Letter of Concord], PBH 2(2004), 65-115 Dr.Vrej Nersessian ‘Did Drtad meet Constantine I the Great’, HHH, vol.XIX,1999,pp.65-70). The Armenian literary figures Ghazar Parpetsi, describes the close links of the newly-founded Christian state of Armenia with Constantinople in these words 'streams of wisdom have been flowing from the royal capital’. Movses Khorenatsi states that he visited Constantinople and provides detailed description of the buildings of the capital. Goryoon relates that Mesrob Mashdots ‘acquired many inspired books of the fathers of the church’ in Constantinople and brought these to Armenia from Constantinople. After the invention of the Armenian alphabets, Mashdots sent his disciples to Constantinople among them Ghevont, Yeznik, Goryoon. Armenian kings and Cartholicoses placed a premium on their political and cultural ties with Constantinople. The revised translation of the Armenian Bible is based on the Greek texts brought to Armenia by those Armenian clergy attending the Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431.

In the autumn of 1453 the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II captured Constantinople. In 1461 the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople was established to supervise both the civil and religious  affairs of the  Armenian ‘millet’, as a practical system of governance over the Armenians in the entire Ottoman Empire. The Armenian Patriarchate played a central role in the reform initiated for the Armenian millet in the 19th century. These were ratified by the Sultan in 1847 leading to the founding of the Armenian Spiritual and Supreme Council in 1863, confirming the regulations that became known as the ‘Armenian National Constitution’ [«Հայոց Ազգային Սահմանադրութիւն»]. In January 1916 the Young Turks terminated and nullified the Armenian National Constitution and the Patriarch of the day Zaven Ter Yeghiayan was exiled to Baghdad and thence to Mosul, where he remained until the end of the war. The Allied victory and occupation of Constantinople forced the defeated Turks on November 20, 1918 to re-institute the legal status of the Armenian Patriarchate. Patriarch Zaven returned to Constantinople on the British destroyer 'Acacia' on February 19, 1919. After the transfer of the Catholicosate from Cilicia to Holy Echmiadzin (AD 1441), from 1520 to 1910, thirty-one catholicoi have occupied the throne of St. Gregory the Illuminator (Ormanian, Azgapatoum,vols.1-III, Beirut,1965) of these  two have been from Byzantium (i.e Constantinople) and four have been former Armenian Patriarchs of Constantinople–Grigor XI Pyzantatsi (1536-1545), Aleksandr II Pyzantatsi (1753-1755), Matt’eos I Kostandnopolsetsi (1858-65), Gevorg IV Kostandnoplosetsi (1866-82), Mkrtitch I Vanetsi Khrimyan Hayrik (1892-1907), Matteos II Kostandnօupolsetsi ( 1908-1910).

On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide it would be a much welcomed gift to the Turks if the Patriarchate of Constantinople–a thorn in the side of the Turkish state–was demoted to the status of a diocese. In the last two decades the Turkish authorities have blocked the election of a new Patriarch of Constantinople. If at some stage in the future Turkey recognizes the Armenian Genocide and decides to make cultural, material compensations then the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, as the principle institution governing the affairs of Western Armenians, would be the main body to negotiate and receive and appropriate compensation on behalf of the victims of the Armenian Genocide.

When the entire Diaspora of Western Armenians for whom the Patriachates of Jerusalem and Constantinople have been spiritual, intellectual and moral fortresses   for centuries, they are being threatened with the prospect of being demoted to the 'status' of dioceses.

It is most unfortunate that the memories of the Genocide victims are being   explicitly and unashamedly exploited by crisis of our own making. It is painful to see attempts being made to vilify the Brotherhood of Jerusalem by accusations of being unfaithful to the memory of the Genocide victims.

  1. Jerusalem, My Home

    It's very sad and disheartening to read about the state of our Church. I did witness, while growing up in Jerusalem, the ugly face of the events between Archbishops Diran Nersoyan and Yeghishe Derderian in Jerusalem's  Armenian Quarter and never realizing the value and wisdom of Archbishop Nersoyan.

    "EE VEREEN YERUSAGHEM" is what's on my lips now, and I am looking forward to the day when the vartabed utters the prayer to send me away, not Echmiadzin. Meg vartabed, meg diratsou zis tagheloo gue daneen. "EE VEREEN YEROUSAGHEM", havidyanes. Amen.

  2. Jerusalem, My Home by Sam

    Նախընտրեցի հայերէն գրել ինծի անծանօթ բայց հայրենակից սաղիմահայուն որ Sam անունը կը գործածէ. քեզի պէս ես ալ այդ չորս տարի տևած պայքարէն անցայ և դեռ մոռցած չեմ պատահած անիրաւութիւնները:

    Նպատակ չունիմ վիճաբանելու և  ըսելու թէ ո՛վ էր իրաւացին: Յամենայնդէպս, քիչ մը յոսահատ կը թուիս ըլլալ և մահուան մասին կը խօսիս. ըմբոշխնէ կեանքը որքան որ կրնաս, եթէ վարդապետ մը և տիրացու մը ի վերին Երուսաղէմը չերգեն, հոգ մի ըներ, կրնան «կը տանին կոր» երգել: 

    Յարգելի Սէմ, Սամուէլ կամ  Սողոմոն, կը մաղթեմ որ 2015 բոլորիս համար շնորհաբեր ըլլայ:


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