Our 1,001 Churches

 Editorial, 31 October 31

When Armenia became Christian in 301, thanks to the efforts of Krikor Bartev (later named Sourp Krikor Lousavorich), the acolytes of Krikor spread across the country destroying pagan temples and building churches, often on the foundations of the previous spiritual centres.

The church-building binge hasn’t stopped. Armenians are still erecting churches in Armenia, although the country, after Greece, leads the world in number of churches per capita. That’s not counting the 4,000 or so churches and monasteries in now-occupied Historic Armenia.

 Editorial, 31 October 31

When Armenia became Christian in 301, thanks to the efforts of Krikor Bartev (later named Sourp Krikor Lousavorich), the acolytes of Krikor spread across the country destroying pagan temples and building churches, often on the foundations of the previous spiritual centres.

The church-building binge hasn’t stopped. Armenians are still erecting churches in Armenia, although the country, after Greece, leads the world in number of churches per capita. That’s not counting the 4,000 or so churches and monasteries in now-occupied Historic Armenia.

So far this year there have been five church constructions. After 70 years of atheist Soviet rule, Armenia seems to have returned to church-building with vengeance. In the past 16 years some 250 churches and monasteries have been built or restored, according to the office of Catholicos Karekin II.

Leading the parade of church builders are Armenia’s notorious oligarchs. Multi-millionaire and founder of Prosperous Armenia political party Gagik Dzaroukian (aka Dodi Gago) has helped build two churches this year alone. There are still two months before the year ends.  So who knows? Since 2010 he has participated in the construction/restoration of seven churches. The cost? Nobody knows. Dzaroukian doesn’t release the figure. However, it’s estimated by observers of Dzaroukian’s enterprises to be in the tens of millions of dollars.

Another person suffering from edifice complex is Samvel Karapetyan. The real-estate mogul, based in Moscow, has also funded church construction in Armenia. Millionaire Hovik Abrahamian, who happens to be Armenia’s prime minister, funded the building of a church in Ardashad during his son’s mayoralty campaign. Apparently, Diaspora moguls are not immune to the “Have Money Will Build Church” impresarios. A Paris businessman (Sarkis Petoian) and the New Jersey-based Hovnanian real estate empire have also funded church construction in Armenia.

Why the church-building frenzy when Armenia has more than its share of magnificent and historic ecclesiastical sanctuaries? Are the Armenians of Armenia particularly devout? There’s no evidence of such devotion after 70 years of Soviet regime. Is it that oligarchs hope they would we admitted to the Pearly Gates no questions asked (a la medieval Papal Bulli-seals) if they fund these redundant buildings? Perhaps their motivation is the terrestrial kind: Armenia’s tax code provides healthy financial incentives for the sugar daddies of our spiritual leaders. Land, supplies, financial transfers, and work done are tax free. The wealthy patrons can also deduct their expenses from their taxes. Would it be pushing to wonder whether some of the above expenses are partially siphoned to the oligarchs’ taxable projects?

Why does Echmiadzin encourage more church building in a country where official unemployment is at 21%? Why doesn’t Echmidazin tell these mogul barons to invest in job creating projects? After all, Echmiadzin knows better than anyone that its congregation is thinning as Armenians are forced to leave their homeland due to economic hardship. Why does Echmiadzin ignore the fact that these churches not only suck funds from the fragile economy (except the ones which attract tourists) but create a permanent need for revenue infusion? Are these buildings intended to polish the tarnished image of the catholicos? Do they have ornate plaques at their entrance which proclaim they were built by Karekin II, the Catholicos-of-All Armenians? Why isn’t the catholicos concerned that in some instances the hand which is making the donation is stained?

To give the catholicos the benefit of doubt… perhaps he thinks this is the way to combat the spread of Western ‘cults’ in Armenia. If that’s the bright idea, His Holiness should consider that a major attraction of the ‘cults’ is the simplicity of message, delivered in simple halls and rooms. After all, church (according to its Aramaic and Greek etymological roots) means a meeting place. Nothing more, nothing less. Ornate gold and silk vestments are not mandatory. Christ led a simple life.

A few years ago when the catholicos was asked what our Church should do to keep the youth interested in the Church, he blithely said: “This should be done at home and at school.”

Meanwhile, his smooth public relations man, Bishop Pakarad Galstanian, director of the Office on Ecclesiastical Liturgical Issues, justified the wasteful church building campaign by saying that it provides jobs in quarries, for masons and artists. He also insisted that there’s a demand for new churches. He didn’t elaborate as to whether Echmiadzin had conducted a country-wide survey to arrive at that self-serving conclusion.

Before thinking of heaven and hell, of Christ and Satan, human beings are compelled to worry about filling their stomachs and securing shelter. That’s what nature ordains.

We built thousands of churches in Historic Armenia. They are now abandoned or are inns, cinemas, stables and worse… if they exist. We built so many churches in Ani that our Bagradit capital was called “The City with 1,001 Churches”. Immune to irony, Armenians still make that hollow boast. Who now prays in those churches other than the occasional Armenian tourist?

In her ‘Eurasianet’ article last month journalist Gayane Abrahamian interviewed Nor Hajn resident Marineh Karapetyan. A new church was recently built in the town as her husband lost his job when a local diamond workshop shut down. “A plant should have been built, rather than church,” said Mrs. Karapetyan. Quite so. It’s hard to concentrate with an empty stomach.

First things, first.

18 comments
  1. Largely Agree

    I largely agree with your editorial, except for some quibbles. It Is a frenzy.There are more than enough churches in Armenia and Artsakh for a 5-8 million population, let alone 3+ million.

    It has been said that had our ancestors built hundreds of  forts, citadels, and walled or fortified cities instead of hundreds of churches, we might not be in the pickle we are in now. Armenian women, children, old people were hiding in churches during the Genocide and praying to be saved: it didn’t stop the Turks from shutting the doors and burning all of those inside alive.

    The fort city of Van resisted Ottoman Turk attackers, who outnumbered the Armenian defenders five to one. And although thousands of Armenian civilians were massacred, thousands more were saved as a direct result of being able to hold out for one month against overwhelming enemy assault, in part thanks to the fact that the city was built as a defensive structure. How different the outcome would have been if instead of one walled city of Van, there were hundreds in Western Armenia and in Cilicia.

    We have some kind a mental quirk to be so obsessed with building so many churches, particularly in the present situation. Maybe some psychologists or brain scientists can explain it, because I have thought about it for years, and for sure do not understand the illogic behind it. Aside from the fact that it is manifestation of irrational thinking, it makes absolutely no sense.

    Churches are what accountants call ‘cost centers’: they cost money to run; they are money pits. They provide employment for a very small number of church employees, but  require a constant source of either private donor or taxpayer funds to pay for the operating expenses.

    A profit producing enterprise, on the other hand, would not only be self-supporting, but would employ far more people, which also has a multiplier effect. In the US, for example, when a factory is built, aside from the primary number of jobs created in the factory, many more secondary jobs are created as a result: small enterprises that provide services to the employees of the factory and the factory itself.

    In California, Armenian-Americans keep building magnificent churches, what looks like, at every corner. In California, there are also many Jewish-Americans. Yet I don’t see a frenzy of synagogue building.

    There is a street I have driven on for years, past an ordinary looking single story building. I never knew it was a synagogue, until a Jewish friend told me it was. Jewish-Americans don’t spend (waste?) their money building magnificent synagogues. They invest it in building magnificent businesses and income-producing enterprises.

    We need to keep discussing this church-building frenzy publicly and gradually shift our thinking. Otherwise it will be repeat of yesteryears: like the thousands of magnificent churches lying abandoned and in ruins in Western Armenia.

  2. Edifice Complex

    What a fabulous photo to illustrate the ridiculous pomp and selfish wastefulness of our church leaders who not only are deaf to the poverty in Armenia but drain our meager financial resources to build redundant churches for their obscene personal glory. Such churches more than being spiritual centres seem to be theatres where the clergy perform on the church stage (altar) in their sumptuous clothes, silk, gold chains, and rings the size of the moon.

    The fact that the group photo of the carmival-style attired senior priests was shot during the ceremony which sanctified our 1.5 million martyrs illustrates how far these peacock gentlemen are from their Lord, Jesus Christ. But the fault lies not with these banal jokers. It lies with a congregation which tolerates these ornate men who love to dress up like Nero, Caligula, and Caesar and go about building–with the congregations money–yet another St. Gregory, St. Mary, Holy Trinity churches…

    1. Pageantry at Armenian Apostolic Church

      I like the pageantry at the Armenian Apostolic Church with the ornate vestments the bishops wear at special occasions during mass. Surely they are not dressed like that all the time. I do not consider the pomp, if you will, waste although I attend mostly Evangelical Church where the pastor dresses down to blend with the congregation who attend what is now commonly  called contemporary service where sneakers and jeans are considered to be a la mode. I do not see much of virtue in the pastor dressing down.

      The Armenian Apostolic Church has a rich tradition. I am for upholding these traditions with all their outward splendor which is more painstaking artistry than wastefulness in the overall scheme of things that make up the church as an institution–be it Apostolic or Evangelical.

  3. Timely and Factual

    A timely and factual editorial. Oligarchs who think that by building tax-exempt churches their multiple sins will be forgotten or forgiven are utterly wrong. People know who they are and what they really are. This is the outcome when you have oligarch Karekin running the Church as his fiefdom and is only the spiritual leader of the oligarchs not the masses. People have no respect for such a so-called spiritual leader. He is the worst Armenian church leader to date which we could do without. Amen.

  4. Churches in Yerevan and Armenia

    Roaming Yerevan (86 sq. mile, population approximately 1 million)  one does not get the impression that there are many Apostolic churches in the city: while greater Cincinnati (80 sq. miles, population  approximately 300,000) where I reside, a bible belt state, a visitor will not miss noticing that there are way too many churches in the city some of which are ornate cathedrals.

    I am not advocating building more churches in Armenia but what I am pointing is that if a person has not visited Armenia, he or she may remain under the impression that one would encounter many churches in Yerevan or anywhere they go in Armenia.

    1. Hrant Bagratyan, a former PM

      Hrant Bagratyan, a former PM of Armenia, has been quoted as saying there are more than 6,000 Armenian churches around the globe for 9 million Armenians. That's one church for every 1,450 Armenian. Only the Greeks have more churches per capita, he has said.

      So it means that it's not only Armenia which indulges in church building. The Diaspora is also guilty… with one church for Echmiadznagan, one church for Antiliasanagan, whether the number of the congregation justifies it. So how does the liturgy vary in the two churches?

      One recognizes the Cilicia head of its church and the other recognizes Echmiadzin. Christ and Khrimian Hayrig must be scratching their heads.

      1. Two Apostolic Churches

        Vahram,

        I will personalize my comment and address to you simply because I have struggled to understand  the very nature of the argument that the Cilician See should be dissolved so the Armenian Apostolic Church will be headed only by one administration under the Catholicos sitting in Echmiadzin.

        I will appreciate if you would elaborate on the following.

        1. I have not come across any Armenian family who is financially overburdened because of the need to support two Apostolic Churches. My questions to you: Have you been financially burdened because of your need to support the two churches. Would you be financially less burdened if Cilicia See dissolved?

        2. I also have not come across any Armenian family who has claimed that dissolving the Cilician See would enhance their spirituality. Would the dissolution of the Cilician See enhance your spiritual life?

        3. I support the centuries-old Cilician See and would not want it to be dissolved and respect its right to have a church anywhere a congregation wants to have a church affiliated with the Cilician See. Why is that you oppose my support and choice?

        1. Vahe,You want me to provide

          Vahe,

          You want me to provide evidence that the existence of the Cilicia See is a financial burden on its congregation and dissolving the Cilician See would enhance the spirituality of its congregation. You also assert the right of the Cilician See congregation to have its own catholicos.

          Your questions imply that I am against the existence of the Cilician See. I said no such thing. The problem is that the Cilician See has been a divisive presence since the mid-'50s when Tashnagtsutyoon hijacked Antilias (with plotters Camille Chamoun and the CIA) and used the Cilician See to divide the Armenian Apostolic Church by raiding Echmiadzin dioceses and establishing churches all over the globe, in places where there were perfectly good Echmiadzin churches and priests. Tashnagtsutyoon politicized a spiritual entity. The Cilicia See became a department of Tashnagtsutyoon: when their man–Catholicos Zareh–saw what had happened as a result of his naivete, he protested. A Tashnag honcho apparently slapped him. Soon after the relatively young catholicos had a stroke and died. The first to mourn were the hypocritical Tashnag leadership.

          Tashnagtsutyoon made the Armenian Apostolic Church a pawn in the Cold War.
          Catholicos Vazken naturally wanted to prevent the split, but the political power of the CIA, etc. made him fail. Yes, he came from a Soviet country, but his priority was to keep the Apostolic Church intact.

          Since then, using the Cilicia See as a front, Tashnagtsutyoon has spread its tentacles all over the Diaspora and built churches where none was needed. These churches are spiritual cum political entities.

          By the way, I am not an admirer of the current catholicos at Echmiadzin. He is an oligarch who got his job through the conspiracy of fellow oligarchs. Catholicos Aram is a better man, although he often shoots off his mouth without much thinking and behaves like a demagogue. I also hear he is a harsh boss.

          I would like to see the Church revert to the pre-split days whereby the Echmiadzin catholicos is paramount and is acknowledged as such by the Cilician See, and more importantly Tashnagtsutyoon. This return to normalcy has nothing to do with the financial and spiritual issues you raised. It's also not related to personalities. This is not about the qualities of Karekin II versus that of Aram I. It's about having ONE CHURCH, ONE HEAD OF CHURCH. Since we are Armenian and believe in the same Apostolic Church tenets, why do we need two heads? We should speak through a single mouth. We would be stronger. Odars would also know that we are ONE, UNITED CHURCH. Would Catholics like to see a Pope in Rome and another one in Rio de Janiero? Although the Catholic Church has a multi-racial congregation (Blacks, Browns, Whites, European, African, Latin American…) it is still one Church with one leader. Imagine a company with two bosses.

          Vahram

          1. Let Leave it at that

            Vahram

            I read your response. 

            I would have liked to engage in some exchanges of views and counter arguments,but labelling the Cilician affiliated churches “spiritual CUM political entities” that have raided  (raped?) Etchmiadzin dioceses does not leave much room.

            Let us leave it at that

            Vahe

  5. Church Building

    This silly argument keeps coming up and I have to say the author is naive to think we have too many churches. Perhaps the only place you'll find fewer churches per capita than Armenia is a Moslem country. Just Google number of churches in any major city in Europe, or the Americas and you'll see little cities like Glendale, California with a population of 200,000 has over 120 churches almost as much as Armenia with a population of 3 million. So please stop this nonsensical argument.

    Secondly and just as important every dram or dollar oligarchs spend to build these so called unnecessary churches go to who? Craftsmen, electricians, masons, stone suppliers, cement workers, architects, engineers, woodworkers, painters, handymen, and the local markets, food trucks, etc. If they can figure out something better to do with the money such as start a small business no one is standing in their way. Armenia was just ranked 35th in the world (out of 189 countries) for ease of starting your own business, up 50 spots from several years ago. Stop the nonsense; base your argument on facts. 

    1. Churches of Armenia

      It's pointless to try to get the exact number of churches in Armenia because some are in use, others are not used, or are in disuse, or in ruins, and some are tiny remnants of the original building. So which one can you call a church? By the way, many of them are surrounded by garbage-strewn land, according architect and historian Samvel Karapetian, head of the Research on Armenian Architecture NGO which promotes architectural preservation.

      The fact is Armenia has 24,000 religious monuments and about 50% of them are in disrepair. If Echmiadzin was really concerned in preserving our spiritual life, historical heritage, and architectural genius, it would start repairing our disappearing ecclesiastical and architectural gems, instead of building sometimes bad imitations and often grandiose new churches to glorify Catholicos Karekin II or this or that oligarch.

      Why do you think every other image in Armenia travelogues features a cathedral, a church, a chapel? As one British travel story about Armenia headlined: "So Little Time, So Many Churches."

      The argument that church building provides jobs is a non-starter. It provides a one-time job and then becomes a drain on the economy because it doesn't produce revenue. In other words a church is an economic albatross even in an affluent country, unless you consider candle-merchandising a rich source of revenue or the salaries of priests a revenue-increasing endeavor. Oh, I forgot: priests do spend money; so money circulates and everybody is happy.

  6. What Percentage

    What percentage of people in Armenia attend church on even a semi-regular basis?
    Do the new churches conduct Sunday school and Saturday school for children?
    Does the church have summer camps for children?
    I also agree that the economic benefits of a church pretty much stop after it is built.

  7. Church Building

    Until such time that the 1,000-plus families living in make-shift tin-houses (since the earthquake) in Gyumri have decent housing, until such time that every village in Hayasdan and Artsakh has potable water, until such time that every village in Hayasdan and Artsakh has modern earthquake-resistant schools and medical facilities, no new church should be built.

    Amot eh!

    1. Comment Author

      The author of this comment says 'amot eh' that churches are built while there are homeless in Gyumri, and waterless in so many villages in Armenia. I agree. The author is my honestly very dear friend who has led the efforts by the All-Armenia Fund (AAF) in Toronto to build many schools, water projects and other projects in Artsakh and Armenia. But who is the All-Armenia Fund? It is the very oligarchy, including the catholicos, behind the splurge of church building. Of course this splurge is just one facet of the massive, in my view catastrophic, damage the extractive regime ruling Armenia is causing our nation. When one helps Armenia through the AAF one justifies its leaders, i.e. props up, and helps protract and perpetuate the vicious cycle gravely endangering our homeland. In other words, one becomes part of the 'amot'. We would not need this amot, if only we came together to say "No" to it lock, stock and barrel. Only then will we be free, and in my opinion the Armenia that will result from such liberation of the Armenian spirit will not even need humanitarian mercy.

  8. Our 1,001 Churches

    Bravo, Vahram. You took the words right out of my mouth. Sadly, to the Tashnags their politics is their God. It is politics first and then God. Did you hear the spiritual message of Aram at the Genocide Centennial Commemoration in Washington DC? For a moment I thought I was at a political rally with his supporters applauding and cheering rather than being at a solemn Hokehankisd of our ancestors. Yes, let's revert to pre-split days. One Church, One Head, One Mouth ~ One United Church.

  9. Church is Not Politics

    The real significance of the buildings of Apostolic churches in Armenia is to prevent the proliferation of other churches which attract the poorest of Armenia's citizens. For us, Armenians in the Diaspora, it does not matter that foreign religions are interfering in Armenian religious life. Who should take care of job creation in Armenia but the government? The Church should not interfere in politics. It should only spread our religion.

Comments are closed.

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