The Government and the Church…A New Reality?

His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians (Photo: Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin/Facebook)

This past week there were two news items out of Armenia that were both unprecedented and worthy of further analysis. First the facts. On Tuesday, April 14, Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, issued a statement calling on the government of Armenia to immediately release former President Robert Kocharyan based on medical risks. Kocharyan is currently in custody pending his trial on charges of breaching Armenia’s Constitution by ordering security forces to fire on crowds in the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election. During that incident, eight civilians and two police officers died. His Holiness based his request on the example of nations releasing at-risk prisoners across the globe to reduce the probability of being infected with COVID-19. He referenced some health concerns of Mr. Kocharyan based on medical opinions. This announcement received wide visibility given public interest surrounding Kocharyan’s charges. It was also viewed in the context of a rare public non-religious statement made by the Vehapar.

The following day an influential Archbishop who is pontifical vicar (primate) of the Ararat Diocese, Navasard Kchoyan, was charged by the National Security Service (NSS) with fraud and money laundering stemming from an alleged connection to a convicted businessman and other associates. The charges allege that Kchoyan participated in a defrauding scheme involving offshore companies. His lawyer has denied any guilt by his client.

The statement by His Holiness has created controversy in the community for several reasons. His Holiness has rarely commented on social and economic issues that impact society. He has remained generally silent on matters such as domestic violence or any of the major challenges facing the Armenian church. He has been criticized for this approach at a time when the faithful are looking for visible and accessible leadership. In particular, it has been considered inappropriate for religious leaders to attempt to publicly influence government matters especially in the judicial domain. It is well known that Karekin II had a strong relationship with both Kocharyan and his successor former President Sargsyan. Despite a comfortable relationship with the former presidents, his influence was focused privately with public discourse limited to liturgical and other religious responsibilities. Discretion has always been evident. The Armenian Church has enjoyed a special status over the years in Armenia which has facilitated its revival but has also drawn criticism from democratic reformists who have encouraged more separation and freedom of religion.

This is a very challenging subject for Armenians given the inherent integration of faith and heritage in Armenian life. Our historical experience in nation state building is comparatively limited. At the same time, the voices appalled by perceptions of church corruption have become more vocal. Some have suggested that this relationship enabled the church to drift from its core mission and damage its credibility. Despite the public dialogue on corruption in the church, His Holiness has, thus far, remained silent on this issue. It is understandable why many are reacting to his call for Kocharyan’s release with skepticism when issues such as corruption, domestic violence and assimilation are publicly ignored. It is reasonable to ask ourselves, why Kocharyan and why now? Is his health at risk and why are specifics lacking? Unfortunately, in the absence of clarity and details some have speculated that this may be intended to help the opposition to Pashinyan by adding another voice to the Kocharyan custody matter although from a different perspective. One thing is clear. Given the challenges the Vehapar has, this public move will only serve to create more debate and perhaps division. Naturally, as expected the Holy See and some diaspora dioceses have issued statements of support for the Vehapar who has been heavily criticized by the Pashinyan government. Karekin II supporters have stated that everyone is entitled to their view, and it is motivated by compassion during this crisis. The Vehapar, as we well know, is not just “everyone.” He is the leader of the global Armenian church and, similar to most leaders, enjoys a wide range of reaction to his public comments.

In this column, we have encouraged the Vehapar to be more vocal on issues impacting the faithful in their daily lives. With that background, perhaps his comments would have been taken in a different context. Leaving the guilt or innocence of Kocharyan aside for the time being, it is not clear how his call for release will bring Armenians together or increase the stability of our society. Pashinyan is managing a delicate situation. The general community wanted justice for the events of the past administrations. It must be carried out with due process and fairness. This is a difficult task with the emotion and frustration that has built over the years. Nevertheless, it is the government’s responsibility. At the same time, Pashinyan is wise enough to know that the country cannot prosecute every major player from the past two administrations. There is a finite tolerance for the “justice” stage post revolution. Some of the violators will make financial restitution and move on. Still others may be recipients of a general amnesty at some point. When this happens, it will hopefully be because it is in the long-term interests of Armenia and its citizenry. This matter today is in the judicial system. External pressure from prominent players does not assist in the process for justice. Karekin II should be focused on strengthening the core mission of the Armenian church in a world full of challenges. There are more than enough urgent matters that need leadership.

Archbishop Navasard Kchoyan pictured with former Armenian President Serge Sargsyan during a commemoration for St. Sarkis the Warrior at the Saint Sarqis Armenian Apostolic Church of the Ararat Diocese, January 23, 2016

The charges and indictment of Archbishop Navasard Kchoyan are of major importance for a number of reasons. The Archbishop, who has been criticized for his alleged lavish lifestyle, is the leader of the Ararat diocese, which is the largest and arguably most prominent in Armenia. The clergyman is accused of colluding with another businessman to defraud an entrepreneur of a substantial sum of money. Regardless of his guilt or innocence, it is not appropriate for Armenian clergymen to have such financial interests when they have taken an oath of humility and service. We have experienced countless  times that excessive material interests and the clergy do not usually produce good outcomes. The church has been burdened by the perception of the corruption anchor for years. Nothing has ever been official. It is tragic that the public has been left to debate rumors in the absence of commentary by the church. Clergy discipline in the church has historically been self-managed. The government has rarely, if ever, intervened in the activities of senior clergy. During the previous administration, the reality was considered part of the support network enjoyed by the government and the church leaders. Even during the first two years of the Pashinyan administration, despite some increased tension, the government has maintained its distance. The charges against the Archbishop is new territory. The immediate response of the Holy See and its supporters was to dismiss the veracity of the charges and mention the fact that the indictment came one day after the Catholicos’ call for Kocharyan’s release. Clearly, some voices in the church are suggesting it may be politically motivated. I find it interesting that if the indictment came out right after the Vehapar’s statement, then the investigation into Kchoyan would have predated that statement. This leads to the many questions that perhaps may be answered in the coming weeks. Are there other clergymen under investigation who may be connected to the perception of corruption? Or is this an isolated example? Finally, since these rumors have existed for years, what triggered the current indictment?

As supporters of the democratization of Armenia, we must always advocate due process and the presumption of innocence. This is the burden the government carries especially at a time when emotions run high. On the other hand, we are all counting on the government of Armenia to set the bar high for eliminating corruption and improving the quality of life for all citizens. It is easy in a free society to criticize but much more difficult to make a difference. Criticizing without a commitment to solutions adds little value. Interestingly, the church carries a similar responsibility but in the ethnic and spiritual domain. We love our church, and it pains us to see it mired in controversy. We all want our church to be respected and strong. The faithful are counting on their church to provide a joyful environment of compassion, love and unity. The faithful have no interest or need for alleged corruption and other negative perceptions that only distract us from the mission and lower the credibility of the institution. Long before these matters evolve into the judicial process, the church has the opportunity to discipline itself for the glory of God and to honor the institution. Let us hope that the best interests of the Armenian people emerge from these incidents and serve as an opportunity to strengthen our mission.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

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.

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