How Many Churches Are One Too Many?

Raffi Bedrosyan, Toronto, 24 October 2013

When someone visits Armenia for the first time, the tour itinerary invariably includes a multitude of churches and monasteries. Modern Armenia is a land of churches. Historic Armenia in Anatolia was also a land of churches, with nearly 4,000 churches and monasteries. The Van Lake region alone had over 300 churches. Ancient Ani, dubbed the "City of 1001 Churches", had 40 churches. We are proud of our churches, awed by their architectural beauty and intricate construction techniques, amazed at their settings perched on inaccessible mountaintops.

Raffi Bedrosyan, Toronto, 24 October 2013

When someone visits Armenia for the first time, the tour itinerary invariably includes a multitude of churches and monasteries. Modern Armenia is a land of churches. Historic Armenia in Anatolia was also a land of churches, with nearly 4,000 churches and monasteries. The Van Lake region alone had over 300 churches. Ancient Ani, dubbed the "City of 1001 Churches", had 40 churches. We are proud of our churches, awed by their architectural beauty and intricate construction techniques, amazed at their settings perched on inaccessible mountaintops.

On the other hand, this obsession with churches, when combined with our tragic history, makes me wonder: "I wish we had fewer churches to visit and instead many more victory monuments such as Sardarabad. I wish our Armenian kings, political leaders and wealthy notables in the past had spent less time, talent, resources and money on these churches and instead, more on fortifications and defense of our lands and territories. When one delves more into the historic reasons why these churches were built, it becomes apparent that they were not necessarily built to meet the religious needs of the population, but to bring glory to the benefactor and perhaps to help him "ease into heaven". Throughout history, our religious leaders have conditioned the benefactors that there is no better way to serve God, Jesus Christ and their Armenian folk than to build another church. Therefore, regardless of political, economic or social realities and upheavals, Armenians have continued building churches in historic and modern Armenia, as well as in all corners of the world, often disregarding other needs and priorities. This was the case in medieval Armenian kingdoms in historic Armenia, continuing in Cilicia and Eastern Anatolia until 1915, then in Diaspora and now in modern Armenia.

The tradition continues today. When future generations look back into the present 22 year-old Armenia and Diaspora Armenians, they will see the challenges of establishing a new country from the ruins of the Soviet Empire, at the same time fighting the deadly Karabagh war, the closed borders and economic blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan, simultaneously dealing with the disastrous 1989 earthquake, and most critically, the continuing depopulation of Armenia due to lack of employment and investment opportunities. And yet, despite these monumental tasks, they will also see examples of vast church-building activities in Armenia and in the Diaspora. In 1997, in the midst of urgent needs to reconstruct Armenia ravaged by the earthquake and Karabagh destroyed by war, Armenians did find the money to build the Saint Gregory Illuminator Cathedral in Yerevan. In 2001 Armenians in Los Angeles started the construction of a huge cathedral, while there was and is scarce money to keep Armenian schools open. In 2011, an oligarch donated all the funds to build the St Hovhannes Cathedral in Abovyan, while the starving local population had almost emptied the town. Just last month, wealthy Russian-Armenians opened a vast new cathedral in Moscow. The Echmiadzin Catholicosate has become a state within a state, a Vatican-like complex expanding continuously with new buildings. The combined total expenditure on these large churches, as well as several other smaller church projects, easily exceeds $200 million. These projects are not funded from revenue-generating sources or regular budgets, but instead, from one-time significant donations of benefactors, mostly from the Diaspora. They will not generate any revenues but will create a continuing need for additional donations for upkeep and maintenance.

One wonders if these donations could be used for more worthwhile projects, such as helping Armenians remain in Armenia, or helping Armenians remain Armenian in the Diaspora. There seems to be a widely accepted belief that neither the government nor the church is in touch with the concerns and needs of the common people. During a recent private audience with the Catholicos, he was asked what the Church can do to keep our youth more interested in the Armenian Church and attached closer to their Armenian roots. His curt response was that this "should be done at home and at school". The much-anticipated Bishops' Synod, assembled last month for the first time in 600 years, did not produce any tangible resolutions to address concerns of the ordinary Armenian, be it in Armenia or the Diaspora. Most benefactors do not want or trust to invest in Armenia due to the fear that government corruption and bribes will make their investment useless and therefore, will not generate economic benefits for themselves nor help the Armenian population. Unless the government takes concrete steps to change the valid perception that investments only end up in the hands of the governing oligarchs, there will not be much participation in the desperately needed economic growth of Armenia, which is essential to keep the Armenians from leaving Armenia. In the meantime, the church leaders continue preaching the tried and true argument that the most beneficial donation a benefactor can make for himself and his family is giving to the church.

Of course, there are truly worthwhile church building and restoration projects, with strategic and significant benefits for all Armenians. One example is the restoration of the Ghazantchetsots Church in Shushi, undertaken immediately after the Karabagh war. During the war, Azeris controlling Shushi had used this historic church as an arms depot and military centre, while continuously bombarding Stepanakert below in the valley. Their reasoning was that Armenians would never attack and fire on their church. When Armenian commandos victoriously entered Shushi in May 1992, they found the church in shambles, burnt, desecrated and full of human excrement. Today, it stands as a symbol of victory against all odds.

The other critical restoration project is the total reconstruction of the Diyarbakir/Dikranagerd Surp Giragos Church in 2011, the first time an Armenian church was restored as an Armenian church in historic Armenia after being destroyed in 1915. This project is strategically significant for a number of reasons: First, the restored church became concrete evidence against the denialist state version of history of the government of Turkey, demonstrating that there was a large Armenian presence in Anatolia before 1915. Secondly, it immediately became a religious and cultural centre helping the Turkish and Kurdish population of Turkey understand the realities of 1915, through media events, conferences and concerts. Thirdly, the foundation which restored the church started the process to reclaim the properties belonging to the church but confiscated after 1915, with several properties already secured through negotiations and courts, for the first time since 1915. Fourth, the church became a living Genocide memorial, attracting tens of thousands of Armenian visitors from the Diaspora and Armenia, helping start a dialogue and better relationship with liberated Kurds and Turks who have faced the historical truths of 1915, and now demand their government to do so. Last but not least, the most significant outcome of the restoration of this church has been the emergence of the hidden Armenians. Islamicized Armenians have started ‘coming out’, visiting and praying in the church, getting baptized, participating in Armenian language courses, helping build an Armenian museum on the church grounds, contributing to the security and administration of the church, demanding acceptance of their real identity by the government, and so on. The church acts like a magnet for these people, with over one hundred people visiting daily on average, coming from all over Anatolia, not just Diyarbakir, trying to find their Armenian roots. New initiatives underway to restore and reclaim other destroyed Armenian churches and monasteries in historic Armenia will help accelerate all these outcomes.

It is my sincere hope that future government and Church leaders, as well as future benefactors, will decide more wisely on what projects to invest in, giving higher priority to the needs and wants of the Armenian people than their own.

Raffi Bedrosyan is a civil engineer as well as a concert pianist, living in Toronto, Canada. For the past several years, proceeds from his concerts and two CDs have been donated to the construction of school, highway, water, and gas distribution projects in Armenia and Karabagh—projects in which he has also participated as a voluntary engineer. Bedrosyan was involved in organizing the Surp Giragos Diyarbakir/Dikranagerd Church reconstruction project, and in promoting the significance of this historic project worldwide as the first Armenian reclaim of church properties in Anatolia after 1915. In September 2012, he gave the first Armenian piano concert in the Surp Giragos Church since 1915.

 

8 comments
  1. Indeed, too many churches

    I couldn't agree more!

    Donations by these benefactors to build more churches is probably benefiting them towards their income tax relief.  That is fine, but they can still get that 'relief' if the same money was spent on building schools, hospitals, cultural centres and, why not, feeding the poor and the destitute (Armenians).

    What is this obsession with us in building churches?

    Look at "Kohar" and the contribution it has made towards Armenian culture. Are the benefactors making any commercial gains? If they are, GOOD for them as they truly deserve it!

    Are there some concealed 'forces' that those benefactors are being cajoled to donate their money towards one purpose and one purpose only?

    ……yet to be seen.

  2. How Many Chruches are Too Many?

    Thank you Raffi for a timely essay on the manner Armenians waste their  precious dollars building one church after another. I am  a committed Christian and proud of our Christian heritage and proud of our unique church architecture.
    But enough is enough!
    1-Scripture (Աստուածաշունչ) repeatedly states that God who created the heavens and the earth DOES NOT LIVE in temples built by hands!
    2-The true church is the LIVING church made up of all those who call on His name and are children of God, from every nation, including Armenia.
    3-We are saved by GRACE through faith and not by works. Building a church may be a pious thing to do , but it does not take the place of true faith in Christ and is no guarantee of entrance into 'heavens door"
    4-Other than famous churches, like Echmiadzin, and during the big holidays, such as Easter, most Armenian Apostolic churches are empty, most Sundays!
    5- Raffi is absolutely right. God expects us to feed the hungry, give a cold cup of water to the thirsty, visit the downtrodden…Mathew 25: 34
    6-Unfortunately, we have seen recently that some of the money given to the Apostolic Church ends up in the pockets of corrupt clergy.

  3. How Many Churches Are One Too Many?

    Good point, well written and well said Raffi.  I am sure the reason is the location on the globe the Armenians have called homeland for thousands of years and their unfortunate history.  Now that they are concentrated in several countries outside of their motherland (some with still unfortunate histories and developments), and economically are becoming successful, lets hope that they will allocate their energy and resources to build bigger and more successful enterprises. As a result schools, community centers and churches will not be places of improvised nurturing activities, but the necessary byproduct of contributors to a strong flourishing culture, the way they were prior to 1900's.

  4. How Many Churches Are One Too Many?

    Raffi Bedrosyan is not only to be applauded for his analytical penmanship, but also for his dedicated and unrelenting fundraising for Armenia, Karabagh as well as for Church restoration in historic Armenia.

    Armenians should focus on schools, youth programmes, senior's homes and cultural centers and not on Churches whether in Armenia, Karabagh or in the Diaspora.

    The existing Churches around the world will serve local communities adequately for generations, without the need to build and consecrate yet another one!

    1. How Correct You Are

      Dear Adom,

      How correct you are. It's true that we do not need consecrate more churches in the Diaspora, except, if I may say so, in newly-burgeoning areas which are (unfortunately) beginning to pop up in the Russian Federation.

      As to those in the RoA, I recently read that an Arab Emirate sheik has pledged $5 million for the restoration and repairs  of  St. Haghartzin Monastery in Armenia. For half-a-dozen years I have advocated the organization on the saint's days kermess ("donavajar") fairs and invite neighboring villagers to bring their food and other products to sell there, paying a fee to place their stalls. From the ensuing revenues the monastery or church would be repaired while these fairs would draw tourists– spiritual tourism, if you will.

      Gaydzag Palandjian

  5. I agree

    Raffi, 

    You are right, excessive church building is a monumental waste of resources.

    Just as an aside, Armenia historically built churches one bell apart as a defensive mechanism (one bell distance to warn of oncoming danger). However, pragmatism turned into tradition, which turned into cultural necessity.

    How many more Armenian traditions were initially born of pragmatism, but remain entrenched within our psyche, despite their usefulness being long gone?

  6. Church’s essence

    Church/Yegeghetsi originally meant a gathering of people. The buildings came later… and then there were/are the costly and ornate buildings. It seems bigger the church and more ridiculously decorated, wealthier is the community and more powerful is its priest.

    Our churches have become like theatres. The star of the theatre is the priest who performs the drama (Holy Mass) on the stage/altar, dressed in jewels, silks, ornate vests, the "chataltag" on his head, carrying mace and other symbols of power. Years ago I tried to count the number of the crucifixes (in painting, in carvings, woven, as objects, on vestments, on the altar curtain, etc.) as I faced the altar. After reaching number 44 I stopped counting. How many crosses do we need to face to realize we are in a church?

    Who pays for this glitzy theatrical production? Wasn't Christ a symbol of meekness and simplicity? Why does the man, who dramatizes His life on the altar, dress up like some fantasy figure with expensive cape and all?

  7. One Too Many a Church?

    I live in Bible Belt U.S.A. Within a radius of 3 miles from our house, there are five churches. They do not attract much attention. Their structures are not as imposing as the structures of the Armenian Apostolic churches, which may be more of a reason for us to consider them waste of resources instead of assessing whether they are adequate to shepherd the people on the principles of Christian faith their ancestors adopted as their national religion.

    I am hesitant to second the popular sentiments that we place undue emphasis on building churches when there are nascent Armenian communities in the Midwest that do not have a church because they do not have the critical mass to afford a sanctuary and a priest, let alone a choir. Even in Armenia and Karabagh, outside noted cities, many villages do not have a church, I am told.

    The Armenian Apostolic churches tend to cluster in areas where there are large Armenian communities and the Church, as an institution, lacks Christian outreach or is unable to do so because of its elaborate liturgy.

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