Hierarchical Harmony: Walking the Talk

We have a history of intra-communal conflict. It is not unique, but it has certainly influenced our journey. Despite the romantic notions of Vartanantz, there were Armenian feudal lords (nakharas) who did not rally behind the cause and were considered duplicitous. The absence of a sovereign state over the centuries made Armenians targets for division and disunity. Students of our modern history will note that many of the names identified by the Ittihad leadership on April 24, 1915 were offered by Armenians. This is a sad note we prefer not to discuss. We are an independent-minded and diverse-thinking people which has been a double-edged sword, particularly in the post-Genocide errors.

The attributes that have enabled our survival have also contributed to sub-optimizing that survival. This has been particularly evident in the diaspora where, prior to 1991, different perspectives on Soviet Armenia eventually led to intra-communal conflict that altered the structure of the diaspora. It was prominently manifested in the church with the administrative division in 1933-34 after months of debate, arguments and the tragic murder of the sitting Primate Ghevont Tourian. This began an era where several “unaffiliated” churches (that were either expelled or exited depending on your perspective) continued from 1933 to 1956 as independent churches without an allegiance to a hierarchical See. The decision in 1956-57 to seek affiliation with the Great House of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon (which until 1915 was seated in Sis, Armenian Cilicia and relocated to Antelias in 1930 as a result of the Genocide) cemented a dual affiliation in the Americas. That administrative division remains in place today with two entities in Canada, Western US and Eastern US. 

The division was not limited to the church. As the most prominent institution was divided, the adjacency impact resulted in de facto alignments of certain organizations. The AYF, ARS, ARF, Homenetmen and Hamazkayin were essentially aligned with the Prelacy community, while the ACYOA, AGBU, Tekeyan and ADL were traditionally with the Diocese. The good news is that, particularly since 1991 and a common goal to help sovereign Armenia, the walls built since the 1930s are being dismantled. The emerging generation is basically ambivalent to a problem from the 1930s. Social relationships and collaboration have transcended traditional boundaries with a pan-Armenian atmosphere. The bad news is that the reality of what remains rears its ugly head displaying hypocrisy to the nation. 

To illustrate this point , let’s briefly identify the hierarchical Sees of the Armenian Church. For centuries, the Armenian Church has had four hierarchical Sees, each with a distinct history and responsibility. Two of the seats have had a stable geographic presence for centuries. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem was established in the seventh century when the church became a permanent part of the Christian leadership in the Holy Land. Its jurisdiction includes those churches and lands under its responsibility either singularly or jointly with other Christian denominations. It has a rich tradition and is a great presence for the Armenians in the land where Jesus’ ministry on earth took place. 

The Patriarchate of Constantinople (Istanbul) was founded by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1461 to lead the Armenian community in the millet system of governance. The Patriarchate has a long and noble history of service to the Armenians of the empire, but has also suffered greatly, particularly in the last 125 years, at the hands of Turkish oppression and interference. Both Patriarchates operate independently, but accept the spiritual hierarchical authority of Holy Etchmiadzin. 

Holy Etchmiadzin is the birthplace of the Armenian church where “the only begotten descended” in 301. It is the seat of the supreme Catholicos of All Armenians. Ironically because of political turmoil and instability in the region, the seat was moved many times over the centuries, finally settling in the Cilicia region in the 11th century with the establishment of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. In the 15th century (1441), with conditions in eastern Armenia stabilizing, the seat was returned to Holy Etchmiadzin for the first time in many centuries as it continues today. 

The last of the four Sees is the Great House of Cilicia, which continued after the return of the supreme Catholicos to Etchmiadzin in 1441. It began in Sivas early in the 11th century and by the end of the century was in the new kingdom of Cilicia. For nearly 400 years, the Catholicos of All Armenians resided in Cilicia. After 1441, the Great House of Cilicia continued, eventually moving to Sis administering to the needs of the Armenians in Cilicia. The Cathedral and monastic complex were destroyed during the Genocide. After Turkish nationalists retook Cilicia in 1921, the See was without a permanent home tending to the refugee needs in former Ottoman territories. The See settled in Antelias, Lebanon in 1930 on a site owned by the Near East Foundation where it remains today. The See recognizes the primacy of the Holy See of Etchmiadzin. It is interesting to note that today what most Armenians are aware of are the jurisdictional conflicts between the Holy Sees of Etchmiadzin and Cilicia, which are post-Genocide issues. For many centuries the four Sees operated with major disagreement. These matters of conflict seem to find their source in external factors (geo-politics, genocide, creation of the diaspora), but we tend to define them as internal disagreements.

A great deal has changed with 2020. The Cold War and its secondary conflicts are long gone. Armenia and the church institutions live in a free state. Our conflicts were masked for decades by larger global issues. There is no excuse for the church Sees to not resolve any open disagreement. There is a tendency to exclude the laity from these realities as if they don’t exist. Coming together when the leaders deem it convenient is unacceptable. As many have reminded me, it has improved. True, but the need has increased at a pace greater than the progress. We should remind ourselves that the remaining issues are self-imposed. During the Soviet era, it was difficult to resolve issues when the church was under the control of the Soviets. Today, they are experiencing more freedom than at any point in modern history. An institution based on Christian love must lead with reconciliation and forgiveness.

Catholicos’ Karekin II and Aram I at the Genocide Centennial Ecumenical Service, National Cathedral, Washington D.C., May 7, 2015 (Photo: Cilicia TV)

In 2015, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Genocide. There was a particularly powerful event held in Washington D.C. The Holy Badarak was celebrated with His Holiness’ Karekin II and Aram I. It was a beautiful sight as priests from both the Prelacy and Diocese offered Holy Communion to the faithful. The ultimate unity, the Body and Blood of Christ, was the gift of that day. As a church there is no greater statement, no reverse gear. After that weekend, several of us suggested to both the Prelacy and the Diocese that the respective Vehapars should conduct Hrashapar service in the “others” parishes. Break down those walls after the Holy Communion experience. Sadly we were almost laughed at. Let’s not push it was the common response. How can we not expect continued Christian love and respect after sharing the most holy of His gifts? It is shameful that our church does not have the will and courage to build momentum after major breakthroughs. That day I recall many of my diocesan friends saying how impressed they were with Aram I, and for most, it was their first encounter. It reminded me of my youth in the Prelacy where I admired Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan for his courage and vision, yet our paths would not naturally cross until I decided to expand my horizon.

The leaders of the hierarchical Sees must “walk the talk” within their jurisdictions and provide us with a sustained sense of oneness. The days of becoming one church when it is convenient for large public issues (earthquakes, genocide, etc.) only to return to business as usual are gone and are both a turnoff and hypocritical. Today, the perception of the newly-elected Patriarch Sahag in Istanbul is still open. He gets a pass from many for the dire conditions of leading a church under Turkish oppression. The early indications are that he will be a placater to the government. In Jerusalem, Patriarch Nurhan is a strong leader who has brought stability and strong leadership to a seat that operates under challenging circumstances. Aram I is a highly respected intellectual and spiritual leader who was mentored by Karekin I of blessed memory. Aram Vehapar has been consumed by the instability of the Middle East and its impact on the Armenian communities, particularly in Lebanon and Syria. Karekin II’s popularity has plummeted after years of corruption allegations. His visibility in the public has diminished as it has been several years since an extended pontifical visit to the United States. 

Our church cannot afford to offer sacraments of the church with photo ops and then return to a partitioned state. This only frustrates the faithful further from the euphoria of the Eucharist to the downside of returning to the status quo. We have the most powerful force in the universe as our foundation: God’s love. There is no need for fear. There should be courage, love and the desire to build a stronger church. All of these leaders have titles and jurisdictions, but most importantly they are Armenian clergymen. They need to look at us from that perspective—one faithful community.

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.
Stepan Piligian

Latest posts by Stepan Piligian (see all)


  1. Well said. Cannot agree more. Unification of our two churches will not only demonstrate our deep faith, but will also strengthen and unite us. Now, more than ever we are in need of that “sustained sense of oneness”.
    Thank you, Mr. Piligian for your thought provoking article.

  2. Amen. Small communities such as the one I reside in with Prelacy and Diocesan churches side by side will not survive long with this division in place. Each church serving only 15 or 20 parishioners separately will soon disappear instead of uniting to form a stronger community and keeping our next generation involved.

    • I believe that the question refers to the person seated to the right of Catholicos Karekin of Echmiadzin.
      His name is Patriarch Ignatius Afrem (Ephraim) the Second, the hierarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church. Before he was elected as Patriarch, he served as the Archbishop of the Syrian orthodox Church in the United States. The Syrian Orthodox people were likewise victims of genocide, and were often included in the same massacres with the Armenians living in the same towns and villages. Patriarch Afrem was present at the centenary to show solidarity and to offer prayers of comfort.

    • Bravo to Stepan Piligian for a well written article regarding church unity, a matter of great importance that needs to be addressed. A house divided will not be everlasting. There is a large concentration of Armenian’s in RI, and other states throughout our country with active Prelacy & Diocesan churches. United there is no limit to what could and should be accomplished. In addition to our spiritual needs already being provided by our churches, we could have an Armenian Nursing Home, Armenian Youth Center, expanded Cultural Center to name a few. Unity would create excitement that would energize Armenian Communities, and savings realized by maintaining one Armenian complex rather than two separate facilities would provide the financial ability to accomplish many benefits that would invigorate our Armenian heritage.
      Matthew 12:25 “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will strand” Luke 11:17 “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household fails”

  3. Church s mission, like the cross must be a UNIFIER UNDER GOD S LOVE, CHRIST S GRACE, AND THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. ROLE MODELING IS CRITICAL TO PARISHIONERS to accomplish their purpose if we are to get anywhere close to God s Heaven on earth.

  4. Very nicely written. I am surprised, though, you have not put or associated a significant weight on the parishioners of Etchmiadzin and Antelias. If revolution is what it takes to unify then it’s likely to be bottom to top movement. In the rainy and stormy days a jacket protects you when you zip up, bottom to top. As a matter of fact 20 years ago I used the same example in Glendale St. Astwatsatin general meeting (Prelacy). As you and I see there has been not change. However, there were roughly 30% of the meeting attendants who were in agreement. Food for thought.

  5. I am thankful for Stepan Piligian. His articles on domestic violence in Armenia touch on a very real and negative dimension of life in Armenia. This article on division among the Armenians is very helpful. While my grandparents were both Armenian, my father was not. So I have learned about these divisions only recently – ie two Apostolic Armenian Churches in Racine WI. I pray that these groups would work towards reconciliation.

  6. The picture accompanying this piece does not convey any confidence. In my contribution to the booklet “One People,One Nation One Church” the Catholicate of Cilicia if it considers its mission to contribute to the revival of the Armenian Church ,it should free itself of its own ‘Babylonian captivity’ break down the ‘Berlin Wall’ that separates the two jurisdictions and seriously rethink its role in the nation.
    The hereditary succession of Presidents of the nations Foundations,not unlike the ancient ‘nakharar’or’feudal’system should step aside and allow the people to elect their leaders and not be appointed.
    The forty or so archbishops and bishops should reconsider their suitability to their Apostolic mission and heeding the words of Saint Sahak « Յորժամ ուխտն որ գլուխն է եկեղեցւոյ ընտիրք և պիտանիք լինիցին,ևս առաւել ժողովուրդն» should vacate their posts:

  7. I am sorry, but I disagree. There cannot be a “unity” of the Sees, especially in America, when each of them have different priorities, goals, and dreams. Here, in Western USA, while the Diocese is obsessed with building more and more multi-million dollar churches and nursing homes, the Prelacy is working to get Armenian language classes in public schools, make Armenian day schools more accessible, build strong community centers, etc. I used to also think that the unity of churches/Sees was a noble cause until the recent years when I am sshocked/outraged at how the Diocese has buldozed old churches and spends millions on new churches, many in very small Armenian communities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.