Archbishop Nareg Alemazian’s Mission

 

Special for the Armenian Weekly

A few weeks ago I attended Badarak at Sourp Asdvadzadzin Cathedral in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. I especially like Badarak there because of the fine choir, John Guevherian’s solos, and Der Momig Habeshian’s beautiful and moving officiation.

Just before communion, His Eminence Archbishop Nareg told us of his recent visit to Iran, after which the Iranian ambassador, His Excellency Dr. Reza Zahib, addressed us.

The ambassador talked warmly of the ties between Armenians and Iranians and invited us all to visit Iran to see for ourselves what a wonderful country it is, with so much historic culture, both Armenian and Iranian. He said he hopes that Archbishop Nareg will assist in starting a dialogue with the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and other Christian denominations, as well as Muslims, to encourage greater ties between Cyprus and Iran. Ambassador Zahib said he feels very close to Armenians, and went on to talk about the importance of friendship between Iranians and Armenians, the fact that the region around Iran and Armenia is being overrun by evil, and the need for the two peoples to stand together and help each other.

A week later Archbishop Nareg told me more of his visit to Iran. When he first arrived in Cyprus in September 2014, his credentials were presented to all of the embassies on the island. The first to make contact and welcome him was the Iranian ambassador—whose embassy, incidentally, is situated opposite the Prelature on Armenias Street. The ambassador invited him to Iran for a dialogue on culture and civilization with the participation of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization and other entities.

Archbishop Nareg explained that he had been to Iran once before, for an international conference between Muslims, Christians, and Zoroastrians. He wanted to see more of Armenian life there and the possibilities of organizing pilgrimages to sites such as Sourp Tateos (one of the oldest churches in the world) and Sourp Stepanos, important and ancient Armenian churches in Tabriz and Nor Jougha. Pilgrimages to such places are especially important as they reinforce our devotion to our religion and cultural identity.

Thus on Aug. 14, a delegation of four went as guests of the ambassador, enjoying excellent hospitality throughout their five-day visit. They met Iranians and Iranian Armenians at universities and other centers of learning in Qom and Tehran for dialogue in inter-faith and ethical subjects. On Sun., Aug. 16, Archbishop Nareg was pleased to officiate at the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the Blessing of the Grapes at Sourp Krikor Lousavorich Church in Tehran.

Archbishop Nareg said that Iranian Armenians have three Dioceses, all under the See of Cilicia—Tehran, Nor Jougha, and Tabriz (Aderbadagan); that there are now roughly 80,000 Armenians living in Iran; and that the vibrant community has many schools and centers, and two members of parliament.

He went on to say that every two years there is official dialogue, both inter-faith and ethical, between the Catholicosate and Tehran; and that this dialogue is very important to perpetuate the mutual respect and good relations between the Iranian and Armenian people. The archbishop says that there are special bonds between the Iranian government and society and the Armenians, and that the centuries-old Armenian community is genuinely an integral part of Iranian society.

Later in August, Archbishop Nareg found himself in Turkey, at Sis, as part of a small group on a mission.

Sis Castle overlooking the Plains of Cilicia
Sis Castle overlooking the Plains of Cilicia

The mission was to hold a requiem, at the ruined site of the historic Sis Catholicosate, for all those who had lived and died there from the establishment of the community in 1293 until its forced exile in 1921; and to read a pontifical message from His Holiness Aram I that spoke of the Armenian Genocide and demanded that the Catholicosate’s Sis property be returned to its rightful owner, the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia.

Requiem led by Archbishop Nareg (second from left), Sis, Aug. 22, 2015.
Requiem led by Archbishop Nareg (second from left), Sis, Aug. 22, 2015.

The mission was publicized upon the return of the participants to the Holy See of Cilicia’s present home at Antelias in Lebanon. The story made it into the Turkish press, where interest was elicited about the “1915 events” and the existence of the Catholicosate. Archbishop Nareg says that this illustrates how Armenians must, even after all the news and brouhaha of the 100th anniversary of the genocide, explain often, and as simply as possible, that they had existed in these lands for a long, long time before 1915. He sees it as every Armenian’s duty to educate the world on this topic. He told me that he always manages to say something about it during his meetings and talks with non-Armenians. What he says is not anti-Turk, nor to show any kind of hatred, but to explain why Armenians from historical Armenia and Cilicia are in exile, far from their ancestral lands, and to dispute Turkish denial.

“My grandparents were born in Dortyol and Adana, my mother was born in Iskenderun. My father and I were born in Beirut. Why were we two not born in our homeland? Why are we living somewhere other than our own country? As I grew up I heard my grandparents talk about their forced exile, so did many of their friends—at least 30 of my acquaintances. Why would they lie?”

He said this at a humanitarian society meeting in Germany, at which many German Turks were present. Funnily enough, the topic was “coexistence.” “All were stunned,” he told me.

“We are opening our wounds for the world to see and for healing to take place. We want to be healed by forgiving the past deeds of a people, but there can be no forgiveness until there is admittance of the deed. It is a simple human process.”

Much more and better has to be done until the Turkish government stops denying the past, he says.

I wanted to know how he felt during his mission to Sis. He said that although he found almost all Turks and Kurds to be kind and hospitable (only once had he felt unwelcome), his thoughts kept returning to the subject of the treatment of our people.

“I was there, on lands which are no longer mine, but that no one can take away from me. The same lands on which my people lived for centuries. Lands on which wars were fought of course, but where nothing like 1915 had taken place before. Is it really possible that the people who live on these lands now are [the descendants of] those who were so brutal in 1915? What has changed? If there were a settlement and we were to return to our ancestral lands, would there be a second genocide? What could be done for this not to happen? Could we live safely together or is that an impossibility given the past and the politics in the region today? These are the existential questions which ran through my mind.”

Finally, we talked a little about his ministry in Cyprus.

The archbishop says that Cypriot Armenians are very lucky to have a government that supports the community by completely funding all three Armenian schools, as well as meeting some part of the expense of running the Prelature. But the community has to be engaged to meet the demands of contemporary times.

He is fully aware of the challenges and is doing everything in his power to involve the entire community by keeping it informed of his activities and presenting it with new events and ideas to help it engage with the church.

“My ministry is my vocation and dedication to God for life through the Armenian Church—the people of God, our community,” he said. “The Armenian Church’s ministry is service to God and the people, but in turn the people must help the church which serves them. This is what I characterize as committed discipleship to Christ.”

 

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R P Sevadjian is the author of In the Shadow of the Sultan and The Darker Shadow, historical coming of age novels set during the Hamidian Massacres of 1896 and the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Sevadjian is a third-generation Diasporan Armenian, whose family left Asia Minor in the 1800s and was scattered across the world, no members remaining in their ancestral homelands. Born and raised in Africa, she now lives in the UK where she is currently researching the Armenians of Ethiopia and the work of B A Sevadjian about whom she has written several articles for the Armenian Weekly. She is currently writing the final part of her Armenian Genocide Trilogy which will be published in 2020.
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