On the 14th of July, a video made the rounds online showing Karekin II getting physically blocked and heckled by protesters chanting “Nor Hayastan, Nor Hayrapet” (“New Armenia, New Pontiff”), as he struggled to get back into his SUV.
This unprecedented challenge to the Pontiff’s leadership—in the same vein as a number of other recent direct-action protests—shows that even the Holy See isn’t immune to fallout from the Velvet Revolution. But while clearly inspired the events that propelled Nikol Pashinyan into the Prime Minister’s office, these protests were not led by a crowd of activists of the millennial-hipster variety. The traditional black robes worn by men setting up roadblocks in the road to the monastery and cursing the Catholicos suggest that they were in fact clergy members.
Most would agree that the time has come for the wave of revolutionary change to visit the church. Catholicos Karekin II, the Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, has caused his fair share of controversy over the last two decades. He has enjoyed warm ties to former-President Serge Sarkisian’s Republican Party (appearing next to the ex-President in official photographs, embodying the close ties between the Armenian State and the Armenian Church). In 2015, an American investigative journalism team identified Karekin II as the owner of a Swiss Bank account containing over a million dollars (ostensibly, as the church spokesman later announced, for charitable purposes). Detractors have long suspected that he secretly fathered children, (some of whom are at the centre of their own controversies). He has also been known to accept fabulously expensive gifts from shady figures over the years, despite the fact that a third of his parishioners live under the poverty line. Some have also criticising his neglect of spiritually and historically significant religious sites in favour of spending more than $50 million on the construction of new churches throughout the country; much of which, used oligarch-sourced funds. The list really does go on.
At the centre of the protest: the mysterious Abbot Koryun Arakelyan. His supporters have compared him to Pashinyan, but the parallels may just be cosmetic. Far from Pashinyan’s brand of liberal reform, Abgha Arakelyan and his supporters have fashioned themselves as flag bearers of religious conservatism, who believe any deviation from scripture is a sin. According to reports, he thinks that the church has been too lenient with sects, and condemned Karekin II meeting with lesbian anglican priests as heretical. Arakelyan’s troupe isn’t just protesting Karekin II’s corrupt and hedonistic behaviour; they also oppose what they see as the Church’s straying from traditional Apostolic doctrine under Karekin II’s leadership. In challenging him, they may be inadvertently setting the stage for a new struggle over the Church’s future. This brings up to questions: what would these competing visions look like? and at what stake?
In countries across the entire former-communist space, churches have wielded a particularly powerful societal weight. The Catholic Church in Poland, for instance, famously helped galvanise public support against communism. In neighboring Georgia, Catholicos Ilia II’s reputation as an incorruptible man of the faith made him the most respected public figure in the country at a time when trust in public institutions was at an all-time low. In most cases, these Churches have then coasted on their association with the revival of post-communist national identity to immunise their actions (and finances) from criticism or public scrutiny.
Armenia, however, has remained curiously unaffected by this trend. Instead of using his authority to influence public policy, as was the case in Poland or Georgia, Karekin II’s role as spiritual leader was instead used to lend legitimacy to the Republican government’s more controversial decisions in the eyes of the faithful. In short: he weighed in on political matters; but only in ways that coincided with the regime’s stance. And even then, he was met with criticism. The Catholicos has frequently been associated with the roster of oligarchs on boycott lists. Flyers depicting his crossed-out face along with Sarkisian’s could be seen throughout the capital during the events of the Velvet Revolution. The backlash against him was so great, that the supermarket chain Nor Zovq even had to publicly dispel rumours that Karekin II was among its shareholders.
So far, Armenia’s religious power struggle has largely avoided spillovers into mainstream Armenian politics, save for the occasional show of support against a very unpopular Catholicos. Despite the country’s population overwhelmingly professing to belong to the Apostolic Church, a long legacy of Soviet-imposed laicity means that most Armenians are, in practice, quite secular. Even Prime Minister Pashinyan, when pressed, cited the official separation of Church and State to avoid stating a stance on the conflict.
But as the tides of change reach the Armenian church, is this precious separation between church and state at stake?
As Armenia rebuilds its national and spiritual identity following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Church has a duty to those who have suffered most from the transition.
The resilience of the Armenian Church over the centuries has transformed it into an inextricable pillar of Armenian national identity. It fulfilled the functions of State when the Armenian people had none to speak of, became a beacon of hope in the darkest of times, and served to preserve language, values and cultural distinctiveness through invasion and Genocide. Yet even the most enduring of ecclesiastical traditions can bow to strain. Old, entrenched institutions are often slow to adapt. When religious elites are accused of straying towards hedonistic lifestyles, detractors always call for a return to values. The question is: just which authentic values are being invoked?
For the most part, despite many faults, Karekin II has always been careful to keep religious matters out of the political sphere. Though they are proponents of much-needed change, it is looking more and more like Arakelyan and his supporters intend to return to a strict canonical orthodoxy ( history tells us that calls for doctrinal purity may not always be tolerant of religious heterogeneity). Abbot Arakelyan may discomfort some with his ambiguous stance on the rights of Armenia’s historic Catholic, Evangelical, and Yazidi religious minorities—not to mention other types of vulnerable groups.
One cause for optimism may lie in another interpretation of the return to traditional values; one where the image of a rolex-wearing Pontiff driving his Bentley through Echmiadzin contrasts with that of a humble parish priest tending to the emotional, financial and spiritual needs of his flock. As Armenia rebuilds its national and spiritual identity following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Church has a duty to those who have suffered most from the transition. Just like Pashinyan dropped the pomp and circumstance which his predecessor rode to notoriety in favour of a more muted aesthetic, one should welcome the Church’s return to its humble roots. The NEW Armenian Church may need to align its priorities with those of the NEW Armenia. Maybe just a little irreverence towards the sacred might get us there.