1700th birthday

Published December 1, 2001


One of the world’s oldest churches – the Armenian Apostolic Church – and one of its youngest states – the post-Soviet republic of Armenia, barely 10 years old – are celebrating the 1,700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity by ancient Armenia.

Armenia became the world’s first nation officially to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301 – two years before the Christianity was tolerated in the Roman Empire.

The Armenian church became a powerful national church helping to create and preserve the identity of Armenians, who have lived under foreign rule for a large part of the past 1,700 years.

This year’s celebrations come at a significant time for Armenia, emerging from 70 years of Communist rule and having fought a long and bloody war with neighbouring Azerbaijan, and for the church, which, like other churches in the former Soviet Union, faces the task of rebuilding its life.

To mark the anniversary, Pope John Paul II visited Armenia in September, and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul), Bartholomeos I, symbolic leader of Orthodox churches world-wide, was scheduled to visit the country before the end of the year.

Armenian communities all over the world are celebrating the anniversary throughout the year. However, festivities in Armenia culminated in September in a gathering attended by leaders from the world’s main Christian traditions and hosted by the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Karekin II.

Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican leaders attended the consecration on Sept. 23 of a new cathedral in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, dedicated to St. Gregory the Illuminator.

According to tradition, Armenia was evangelized by Christ’s apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew. But it was St. Gregory who baptized King Tiridates III, who in turn proclaimed Armenia a Christian state in AD 301.

The consecration was attended by Armenian President Robert Kocharyan and visiting dignitaries, including Eastern Orthodox patriarchs Petros VII of Alexandria and All Africa, Alexei II of Russia, and Teoctist of Romania; Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, leader of the Anglican Communion; Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; and Dr. Konrad Raiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches.

The construction of St Gregory’s Cathedral was financed by contributions from the Armenian government and from wealthy Armenians living abroad. More than five million of the world’s eight million Armenians live outside Armenia.

Another sign of the ecumenical openness of the Armenian Apostolic Church was the warm welcome extended to Pope John Paul II, who visited the country in September and celebrated a mass outside Etchmiadzin Cathedral.

Like other dignitaries who came to Armenia for the celebrations, Pope John Paul visited the Tzitzernagaberd memorial at Yerevan, which commemorates the 1915 massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks.


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