What will become of the Cilician See?

We live in a dangerous world. Most Americans are insulated from the violence and deprivation on this planet, but as Armenians we have a unique perspective. As children of the diaspora, our network reaches to every corner of this earth. Many of us were born here and others have migrated here, but all of us have a connection to Armenians somewhere else. When there is strife in places like Lebanon, some of us worry about family, or perhaps mourn for a location that holds a special place in our heart. The diaspora is a convenient term to describe those who represent the dispersed state of the Armenian nation. It is usually the result of forced expulsion or the need for economic betterment. The Armenian Diaspora gained its identity in the early part of the 20th century with the Genocide survivor generation.

Despite our common bond, each community in the diaspora has adapted to certain unique cultural norms from their host nation. Some of these countries have a societal structure that has encouraged Armenian identity. For example, in the Middle East the schools were for the most part run by the Armenian community, thus greatly reducing the risk of assimilation. In contrast, Armenians in America generally live a dual identity as geographic and cultural diversity is more diluted. Each community whether in the Middle East, Europe, the Americas or Australia has adapted in a unique way to retain an identity and function as responsible members of the greater community.

The Armenian Church of the Holy See of Cilicia (Photo: Facebook)

Parts of the diaspora are in a constant state of change due to instability, conflicts and economics. One of the products of the diaspora is the current state of the Great House of Cilicia. It is truly a remarkable story that all Armenians should value. Due to political strife in the Armenian Highlands from foreign invasions, the seat of the Catholicos of All Armenians moved several times through the centuries. In the 11th century it moved to lesser Armenia (Sepastia) for a short time before settling in the Cilicia region during the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. It remained there for several centuries until 1441. The political environment in Etchmiadzin (eastern Armenia) was stable enough for the Catholicos to return after several centuries. During that time Armenia was split between the Persians in the east and the emergence of the Ottoman Empire in the west. The elder Catholicos decided to stay in Sis, Cilicia; a new Catholicos was elected in Etchmiadzin. Since 1441, we have had two Catholicos, with spiritual authority residing in Etchmiadzin and practical jurisdictional responsibilities established. All hierarchical Sees (Constantinople, Jerusalem and Cilicia) recognize the supremacy spiritually of Holy Etchmiadzin.

The Holy See of Cilicia continued to thrive as a spiritual center in Sis until the Genocide. The cathedral and monastic complex of St. Sophia was destroyed by the Turks during the period of 1915 to 1916. The sitting Catholicos Sahag II was forced into exile and traveled to refugee camps to tend to his ravaged flock. Aside from a brief return in 1918 when the French encouraged the Armenians to return, the See operated without a permanent home until 1930. A permanent home was re-established on the former property of the Near East Relief and quickly expanded to include a seminary, library, publication houses and cathedral. The venerable Catholicos continued to travel to refugee camps assisting his flock in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere as the Armenians began to rebuild their lives. Jurisdiction was primarily in the Middle East (essentially former Ottoman territories) including Cyprus, Greece and Iran. In 1956, based on the request of American Armenians from the “unaffiliated” parishes, what is now known as the Prelacy was created. Separate Prelacy dioceses were later formed in the western sector of the United States and eventually in Canada.

Each of our hierarchical Sees today are faced with unique challenges that impact their long term survival. The Constantinople Patriarch is faced with an oppressive Turkish government that denies access to Armenian properties in western Armenia and continues to meddle in the affairs of the church. The seminary has been closed for decades, yet the Turkish government continues to narrow the definition of those eligible for candidacy as Patriarch (as perfectly illustrated in the recent election). The Jerusalem Patriarchate faces the challenge of a dwindling local Armenian population and financial concerns that are further complicated by an unfavorable political environment. Holy Etchmiadzin has been challenged by the unprecedented responsibility of having access to the world diaspora and addressing the overwhelming needs of the Armenians in Armenia. Credibility issues have further challenged the ability of the Holy See to serve the needs of the people.

The See of Cilicia operates in a volatile region that has been subjected to sectarian strife for centuries. In the post-colonial period, most of the nations have had unstable governments and local conflicts have required skillful neutrality by the Armenians. One by one, we have witnessed the marginalizing of the Armenian communities established essentially from the Genocide. The strong Lebanese Armenian community, protector of Antelias and center of diaspora vibrancy, has been reduced to one-third of its size with civil war, sectarian violence and economic problems. The Iraq community has been decimated by the wars in the last decades. Cyprus has been subjected to a partition with the invasion of the Turks. The most recent impact has been the stoic and remarkable community of Syria. Aleppo, the original refugee diaspora after the Genocide and a vibrant Armenian center for decades, has been reduced to a fraction of its population due to the brutality of the civil war. There are many other Armenian populated villages and towns in the north of Syria and elsewhere that have been heavily impacted by the assault on Christian communities. While this demographic shift has been significant, new communities have been established over the years in the Persian Gulf states. It is a difficult position for the Holy See. 

How can you encourage emigration from these hot spots that would weaken infrastructure and the adherent base of the See? But the trend is clear. The Armenian communities of the Middle East have been under siege, and their strength has been reduced. Will this continue? If there is a relationship between our demographics and the stability of the region, one would have to surmise that we have not reached the bottom. If the future further reduces the population of the region, and the Antelias See and its infrastructure are reduced to below a critical mass, what will happen to the Holy See? Many Armenians without a relationship with Antelias view it in an adversarial manner with Etchmiadzin. Obviously, this is influenced by the presence of two dioceses in the United States. But the Holy See is much more than a participant in a division. We are all a party to that stain. Many are just beginning to discover this as our knowledge evolves.

Addressing problems when they become a crisis is the wrong time to expect an optimal solution.

In a more natural state, where there is jurisdictional harmony within the church (I avoided the word “split”), we would actually have the ability to discuss these issues from a strategic and rational standpoint. Addressing problems when they become a crisis is the wrong time to expect an optimal solution. Again, in a more natural state where our leaders act like leaders without regard for turf and power but with an eye towards our 10 million strong nation, we might discover a creative solution. In modern times, the See of Cilicia has become the most proficient resource we have in managing the diaspora. I have always viewed the Cilician See as an institution of the diaspora. We should treasure our collective assets and align them in the most effective manner. As we are learning with the current Etchmiadzin administration, meeting the needs of those in Armenia and the diaspora is not “one size fits all.” We are learning this from the perspective of what is not working. The Cilician See has prospered because it has found a way to work productively in diverse cultures where Armenians reside.

One may suggest that the same is true with Holy Etchmiadzin with its administration of Europe, South America and Russia. Until relatively recently, however, they operated as decentralized dioceses while Armenia was under Soviet control and in the first decades of Armenia’s independence. Etchmiadizin’s ability to directly manage a complex diaspora has never been fully tested. The Mother See will clearly benefit with some assistance. Directing the dioceses with an overly centralized loyalty network will not endear the new generation that are part of a dual identity in the diaspora. Another issue is that of eastern versus western Armenian—not simply the dialect, but the identity and cultural norms. Acknowledging the emigration from Baku and Armenia, the western diaspora (US, Canada, South America and Europe) is still predominantly Western Armenian. Is it possible that the See of Cilicia can offer additional relationship value with their superb record of highly trained celibate clergy and experience? Again we need to think about this in the context of a more natural state, not the vision-lacking, highly competitive and overly centralized view of today.

What is apparent is that this has value only when we view the See of Cilicia as a jewel of the full Armenian nation. Our partisan views only limit our potential. Solutions to long term problems start with dialogue today. There is no imminent danger of the See losing its position today, but leaders have the responsibility to act before the crisis is reality. This cannot be the typical silo discussion where each faction addresses its own agenda. It can be a manifestation of our pan-Armenian identity. There is plenty of work here in the business of salvation and ethnic identity for all hierarchical Sees. We don’t live in a static world, but rather a dynamic one. Our thinking must be dynamic to complement that certainty. Let’s all work to tear down old and outdated stereotypes and allow our full capabilities to ensure our future.

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

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  1. Well noted Stepan and timely. The Cilician See is indeed a jewel of the full Armenian nation. It is the last hope for guarding of our Western Armenian language and the only living living institution of the loss we incurred in 1915. Woe to us as a nation if we ever lose it. We need to cherish it and guard it.

    • Great article, most challenging for the Armenian Church. As children of God we’re taught to love, forgive and be One in Christ. Our children would witness true love and humility if Church Leaders start working towards unity. The Middle-East situation is dire.
      Let’s pray for our leaders for wisdom, courage and the willingness to follow God’s will of love and unity.

  2. I visited the site in 1948 as an 11 year old with my parents. We had lunch together with the Der Serpazan Khoren. It was a great visit both with him and the Diocesan. I still have the picture having lunch with him.

  3. I am an ordained deacon in the Eastern Diocese. I was fortunate during this epidemic to listen to the daily reflections from the Eastern Prelacy as well as some of the sermons from Antelias.
    Generally speaking, I found the sermons given by the clergy members belonging to the Cathlicosate of Antelias very uplifting and refreshing and the dedication of Antelias to preparing such fine clergies quite encouraging. I am convinced that as long as Antelias provides such a quality of clergies, then I would definitely support the mission of the Cathlicosate of Antelias.
    Roupen Kiredjian
    ps – this letter was printed in Mirror Spectator in the June 25 edition

  4. Excellent summary. Well thought out. Bravo! You area remarkable man
    and always have been
    With Western Armenian now officially described by
    international scholars as a “dead language “(contracting with no hope of stability nor expansion)
    and with multiple research journals listing all branches
    of Christian faiths as likely to be annihilated in the Middle East
    how do we preserve an institution that likely can not be sustained past our grandchildren s lifetime ,and Is it the best use of our limited resources to prioritize institutions over individuals. As individuals we have a two hundred year contact with humanity- from our grandparents generation born in the 1890’s through our grandchildren’s generation who will live into 2120! What message do we write in their hearts to show them what we value the most? It is a small message board indeed with limited space

    • A correction: Western Armenian has been declared “Definitely Endangered” by UNESCO, not “dead”, and this designation is based exclusively on the language’s presence in modern Turkey, not on its vitality in Armenian Diasporan communities in the Middle East. Christianity is also not “annihilated” in the Middle East, although this may be the impression one gets while viewing the region from the West. A sense of vision must come before any rationale based on “limited resources”. What resources did survivors have in the wake of the Genocide? Yet they had the vision and determination to establish schools, churches and organizations in the Middle East.

  5. Mr, Piligian’s comment about the threats facing the Cilician Catholicosate by its geographic location in a hostile neighborhood apply equally to the Etchmiadzin Catholicosate which is located next to Turkey and Azerbaijan, both of whom threaten our homeland, which only has Russia available for its defense. Given the Trump administration’s isolationist agenda and its constant threats to weaken our Nato and and other multi-lateral defense pacts. The flood of Armenians out of the republic recognizes the instability of Armenia’s reliance on Russia for its defense.Mr. Piligian fails to recognize the equal jeopardy facing Etchmiadzin as well as Antelias.

  6. Thank You good article. Eye opening. Should have been more powerful to wake up some people. Yes correct t Diaspora is in bad shape, except some Western Countries, such as US, Australia, France, in Middle East Armenians kept their Language, Culture, Identity. However, in US where I live situation in many ways is much worse. Yes we have schools and educational activities, but what I have notices it s day by day diminishing and one day will go away for good, remember about 60 years ago in Fresno and even in East Coast.I am not pessimistic, but language will go away, assimilation perhaps another big problem in Western Countries. Even in Armenia, the language is half Russian and half gang terminology. watch the Armenian TV and TV news and serials you will see, each time I watch, collect 10-20 words in one hour time. we have to ask us the “fundamental question”, and unfortunately nobody is asking hat or even thinking that, cultural organizations, both churches etc. they all using a bandage approach to the problem, and we know it didn’t hep in past and won’t help in the future.

  7. I agree with your statements: “Let’s all work to tear down old and outdated stereotypes and allow our full capabilities to ensure our future. Our partisan views only limit our potential. Solutions to long term problems start with dialogue today. ” However, it is imperative to know the roots of the problem to be able to develop a constructive dialogue and arrive to a just solution.
    Regretfully it was partisan views that led to the split and it is partisan politics and economic interests that are maintaining that split, not doctrinal ones. I also want to clarify couple of points. Contrary to your statement that the Cilicia See’s “Jurisdiction was primarily in the Middle East (essentially former Ottoman territories) including Cyprus, Greece and Iran”, the latter two were brought under that jurisdiction only after the split in 1956. Even Beirut, the current site of the Holy See of Cilicia, was not under its jurisdiction, but under that of the Jerusalem Patriarchate. In a letter dated December 25, 1928 HH Kevork V, Catholicos of All Armenians recommended to Patriarch Yeghishe Tourian of the Jerusalem Patriarchate to cede its churches and schools in Beirut, Damascus and Latakia to the Cilicia See to make it a viable entity capable of serving the multitude of refugees that had reached Syria and Lebanon. It should also be noted that the ARF tried to gain control of the Jerusalem Patriarchate in the second half of the 1930’s but failed. Some 20 years later they were able to take control of the Cilicia See through the help of the then President Camille Shamoun of Lebanon and got control of the churches in Iran through the help of the Shah of Iran.

  8. Thank you very much for this piece, Stepan. I hope it reached the eyes of both Catholicoses and help move them to join forces for some serious strategic planning for the preservation of Armenian identity in Armenia and the Diaspora.

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