Transparency Starts With Leaders

Much of the public attention on corruption in Armenia has been directed at the government and business structure. Corruption takes on many forms that erode the innovation in a society. It renders the majority powerless. It creates a victim mentality that extinguishes hope—the fundamental element for prosperity and happiness. Given the financial implications of corruption (bribery, theft, monopolies and deceit), it is natural that most of the visibility is focused on the government and business community.

Another outcome of the corruption in Armenia has been poor governance, stagnated job growth and of course the resulting emigration. Armenia suffered from this malaise significantly during the first 25 years of its independence. This is the environment that led to the Velvet Revolution and the emergence of the Pashinyan era. Timing is everything. PM Pashinyan and his allies read the will of the people and their limits of intolerance correctly. It led to a rare circumstance in modern nationhood—a street movement that quickly evolved into the governing structure without violence and short term chaos. This is a remarkable achievement by the Armenian people. Clearly governing in a parliamentary democracy however, with a long list of pent up challenges, is much more difficult than the Revolution itself.

Nevertheless, Pashinyan should be applauded for two major reasons. He restored hope in Armenian society and credibility in the diaspora. This accomplishment—from despair to dreaming again—should never be underestimated. Honeymoons in government tend to dampen some of the initial euphoria, but Armenia is a better place when its citizens have hope. Talk to the people on the street and in the villages. It is a prerequisite for any progress.

Pashinyan has also introduced the concept of transparency into the leadership environment. He speaks openly, honestly and often. He is accessible, visible and focused. Is everyone happy? No, of course not. But he is addressing some of the tough issues that have been avoided by past administrations, thus granting voice to many who have been silenced. Transparency in leaders is what inspires followers. We have witnessed the impact of its absence.

Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians (Photo: Facebook)

There is another equally important institution in Armenian life that has been the subject of corruption perceptions and has failed to embrace transparency. This is, of course, our beloved church in Holy Etchmiadzin. It is one of these not so well kept “secrets” in our community. Everyone talks about it, but in unofficial capacities. Corruption perceptions are typically directed at individuals in leadership. Our church is no exception to that general rule as our Vehapar in Holy Etchmiadzin has developed this reputation. What I find amazing is that many faithful Armenians privately or in casual discussions routinely share their disgust with the corruption perception, yet either feel powerless or ambivalent about doing something to address this matter. Incredibly, we acknowledge the issue individually, yet apparently we haven’t connected it to the health of the institution we revere. When leaders lose credibility, for whatever reason, we become leaderless, as our direction becomes unclear.

At the top of the pyramid in our church should be our faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ followed by our identity with an institution of our faith which in this case is the Holy Apostolic Church. The “mission” is our salvation through Christ Jesus according to the traditions of the Armenian Church. Our leaders are elected to serve that mission. Period! It is a mission filled with sacrifice, love, faith and commitment. This is why corruption can be so devastating in an institution that exists primarily to bring us the Good News. Corruption and God? I don’t think so. But we all know that despite the holy mission, His church is run by humans—imperfect and subject to sin. 

But He also granted us free will with which to manage our earthly life. In my view, part of that responsibility is to protect our institutions from harm’s way. So we have a problem! Perception becomes reality when it impacts people and their relationships. I am sure we all know people who have witnessed, experienced or heard stories of the leadership style of our Vehapar. Let me say politely that it is control-oriented. At a time when we should be empowering the dioceses in the diaspora to find a balance between keeping the church relevant in diverse societies, he seems to feel that his job is to keep us  Armenian by insisting on a set of centralized commands. One size does not fit all. That was decided a long time ago when we became a dispersed people. We are bonded by our heritage and faith but are all influenced by the environment in which we reside. If our discussion were limited to management style, it would be concerning, but not critical.

Unfortunately the perceptions go beyond style and into the realm of overt corruption. Again, let’s ask ourselves a question. Why do many responsible Armenians privately acknowledge this perception of corruption, yet fail to bring it into the designated forums of our church? I have asked many of those in this predicament. The overwhelming response is, “What good would it do?” Not…“I don’t believe it.” They essentially feel powerless. Confronting problems is difficult for many in our community. It is easier to talk about it socially, vent to friends or simply ignore issues when they become problematic. Most of us prefer to be on the “inside” of the community. Let’s face it. If you confront a perception of corruption in leaders, you are taking a risk of social isolation.

Our church likes to talk about itself as a democratic institution. Parish councils, Diocesan councils and Diocesan bishops are all elected. We even have elections for the Catholicoi that include lay and clergy delegates. The problem is that once the election took place for the Catholicos, the democracy ended. Most of his decisions are directives. The Supreme Spiritual Council, an advisory group of lay and bishops, is appointed by him and essentially confirms his decisions. In other words, the ongoing process is very dependent on the “management style” of the leader. Given the top-down control focus, it does not exactly encourage the faithful to take any risk in bringing real issues into the church. As a result, we avoid substantive dialogue, and perceptions of corruption are certainly in that category. We just tolerate the perception, and all that comes with it.

I am particularly concerned about infringement in the authority of Diocesan bishops. The canons of our church have traditionally empowered the Diocesan bishops to “run their show.” For example, the readiness of a candidate for the priesthood is the responsibility of the bishop, yet we have several examples of “meddling” with criteria and readiness. Most of these are not public and therefore remain “under the radar.” This is not a healthy environment for our church. The church belongs to the faithful, and leaders are elected to serve God and the faithful. We can ignore these perceptions and relegate them to substantive rumors, but they chip away at the credibility of the church and its ability to carry out its mission.

We suffer today from silent leadership.

But there is a solution. It is seemingly absent in today’s leadership, but if allowed to prevail, it would bring fresh air into our beloved church. Transparency! When we have credibility issues, our leaders have a responsibility to “clear the air.” Whether it is perception or reality, denying the corruption does not eliminate the concern from the thousands who have this view. We suffer today from silent leadership. It is the “elephant in the room,” yet it is never acknowledged. There is still enough respect for the institution that an open dialogue on this matter would be received generally with respect. The church is accountable to the faithful like any other institution to its constituency. However, our extreme hierarchical nature can sometimes reverse that accountability. It seems the faithful are left out of their own church.

Fortunately , we have many wonderful clergy who understand their sacred role and use their authority for the faithful. They are keeping the church functioning across the world on a daily basis, while these other less attractive perceptions persist. Why won’t our leader(s) embrace transparency? Is there something to hide? Does the arrogance of power make them not feel accountable? Do they not see the damage this is causing?

The answer is probably all of the above. I have met literally hundreds of Armenians who say, relative to helping Armenia, they will not donate through Holy Etchmiadzin because of a fear of corruption. True or not, it is influencing personal decisions. Of course, there will always be a few major benefactors who will have their names on a new building or underwrite major programs, but cash flow is not necessarily an indication of the problem. Identity with the institution is how it manifests itself. It is rarely binary. Rather it leads to a slow “turn off.” Here’s a sports analogy for you. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is now famous for the slogan, “Do your job.” We all need to “do our job.” The faithful must ask questions and not be ambivalent. Elected leaders must be challenged, even if it is uncomfortable. The Vehapar must embrace transparency and address these perceptions. The Spiritual Council should immediately advise him as such. If the assertions are false, then prove it. If they are true, then show remorse and seek forgiveness. Take responsibility as the elected leader. To date, neither path has been chosen, which simply encourages more conflict, aloofness from the church and decline. We all need to do two things in this regard. First we need to pray on this, and then we need to “do our job.” We all have a role in elevating our church, including the Vehapar. Questioning authority is not disrespectful. It is about checks and balances. At the end of the day, it is the mission that remains sacred. Whatever we do, it should be with love for our church.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Columnist
Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.
Stepan Piligian

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16 Comments

    • Speaking solely for myself, born and raised in the diaspora, mother of two daughters, born and raised in the US, I find it very difficult to reveal all this to them for fear that it may distance them from the Armenian Church, the one and only institution that is supposed to gather every and all armenians under its wings with no exception, as per the Christian faith that we all say we belong to! If this very important issue is not taken care of immediately, we can hence say to our Church: “ouremen tzerke rest leva kalik serounten(neren)!

  1. Recently, a so-called “Pan-Armenian Coalition of the Western US” was set up to ostensibly serve as spokespeople for and representatives of the greater Armenian community in California — but have appointed themselves without holding popular elections. Oligarchies are alive and well in the Diaspora, not just in Armenia.

  2. Stepan Piligian’s article “Transparency Starts with Leaders” is timely and sobering. It is “straight talk” well expressed. Silence in any situations is a “killer”. I am a first generation survivor of the Armenian Genocide living in Los Angels. I had the honor to serve as State Minister of Armenia 1992-96, from day one of Independence, under Preaident Levon Ter Petrossian. I, also, have known and served under three Catolicia: Vasken I, Karekin I and Karekin II. I have known and worked with Karekin II while he was the Archbishop of the Araratian Region in Yerevan. He seemed to be a great and caring Archbishop at the time.
    Unfortunately as times change people change with it. When the focus of the Church shifts from Christ to material values the decline becomes quick and uncontrollable. I never could understood why most high ranking Armenian religious leaders would succumb to msterialism. GREED is the only obvious reason. The conquncency of GREED can only be detrimental. The result is rapid indtitutional decay as is the current situation in the Armenian Apostolic Church. Silence by Curch leaders is a coverup to pull the rug over the problem they have created. If our Mother Church leaders continue to ignore the urgent need to become transparent and undertake urgent reforms to the Church Order, comming Armenian generations will suffer the most. Time to act is NOW while there is still a chance to remedy the sad situation.

  3. It is always good to ask for an accounting of the affairs. Every denomination has had problems of dishonesty. My father back home used to support our church continuously, but he would say I am giving an giving I don’t care what they do with it, because those who complain, never give. You can always give generously and ask for an accounting. God Bless our mother church.

  4. Young kids don’t want to even discuss the church anymore. It’s a dying institution and it will continue to decay till they take an active role in improving the life of the needy. Our patriarch is a dinosaur and needs to go. Outside of massive and beautiful compound that he lives there’s pain and suffering and he’s doing nothing about it!

  5. Thank you for writing this article. I think as Armenians who care about our church we should send a clear message. I agree no Armenian should send money to Etchmiadizn. It is similar to an embargo. Secondly, there are a few things we can change for the future. We need to ensure that the position of Vehapar or any leader has a time frame. Just like the US president serves for a term of four years. I don’t see why the Vehapar can not serve for four years. Also, we the Armenian people should also be able to vote for Vehapar not just the clergy. Our voices should also be heard. Celibacy needs to end. It is against the law of nature. The bible itself in genesis states be fruitful multiply….. St Gregory the Illuminator our first Vehapar was married. His grandson became vehapar as well and was married. Celibacy IS NOT WORKING. We need to make some changes. Lastely, We can boycott help for Armenia. Any help. Trust me when the money stops coming in they will make sure there is a new Vehapar tomorrow. A lot of money goes to Armenia from the Diasopra and a lot of people benefit from that money. At the end of the day it is all about the money. Sad to say. I agree we should care and question if we love our church.

  6. Please read this on the corrupt activities of Karekin II. WASHINGTON (A.W.)—On Feb. 8, the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released details from 60,000 leaked files on more than 100,000 client accounts (individual and legal) with the British banking giant HSBC. Among the 61 clients profiled on the ICIJ website is the Supreme Karekin II Appears in Leaked HSBC Files. According to the ICIJ, HSBC files revealed that Karekin II was first listed among its clients in 2000. The profile states, “He was connected to an account named ‘His Holiness Karekin II Nersis’ that listed one bank account and held as much as $1.1 million in 2006/2007.”

  7. I for one have never seen a list of verified misdeeds against any high ranking church administrator. Unsubstantiated accusations are shameful. If there are indeed substantiated misdeeds on file somewhere, make them available as a matter of public record.
    Further, there are numerous urgent things to consider. Our present system served our nation well for some 2,000 years. But after 100 years plus in diaspora, it does appear that a huge segment of our people have little or no clue about the meaning of our splendid Holy Badarak which is performed for 2 plus hours every Sunday. Fewer and fewer people are following out of the religion of their ancestors. They are finding other options which appear to resonate with them.
    Criticism of the status quo is easy but unfortunately, facilitating better options is so much harder that the process usually lingers on the easy part.

  8. The year was 1846. Faithful Armenian Apostolic clergy and lay people in Constantinople were declaring their desire to reform their church and bring it back to its biblical and apostolic simplicity. Much transpired in those times, but the bottom line was a patriarchal anathema and subsequent persecutions, and thus the Armenian Evangelical Church was born. Let’s hope and pray that history does not repeat itself in these times.

  9. Dear Stepan.
    This is a very well thought out and presented article. I appreciate the content and the very respectful manner that it was presented.

  10. Very well thought and written article, and unfortunate subject matter.

    Where there is doubt, an institution will crumble. I see it online, in part thanks to this lack of transparency and obvious insincerity and showmanship in this highest form of leadership in the Armenian Apostolic Church, thousands of people now renounce religion altogether! There is no respect for church, and often none for God. It may be personal choice, however, seeing this type of corruption at the highest level, and even at a few local churches as well (obvious fake reporting and avoidance of real questions at Parish Council meetings) is contributing to people leaving the church. Greed is the death of any and all man.

    I too agree that it would be best to allow married priests to progress in the respected (and altogether voted) ranking of the church. There need to be true, transparent, and naturally obvious checks and balances. We have been a Diasporan people, so many established outside of Armenia, and from generation to generation working hard to maintain our ties to each other culturally, to the church, and to maintaining our language – which often is Western dialect, which is dying quickly…unless our children at the least are tied spiritually to a church and want to attend the wonderful Armenian language schools our churches provide. EVERYTHING is tied together – and it all starts with the head(s) doing the right thing!

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