From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Christian leaders celebrate Armenia's milestone of faith
Mon, 4 Jun 2001 15:13:55 -0500
June 4, 2001 News media contact: Joretta Purdue ·(202)
NOTE: This report may be used with UMNS story #255.
WASHINGTON (UMNS) - A rare, perhaps unprecedented, event brought together
representatives of the Catholic Church and the National Council of Churches
(NCC) May 30 to celebrate the Armenian Church in a service of great beauty,
color and majesty.
The 1,700th anniversary of Armenia's conversion to Christianity drew leaders
of the Armenian Church together with a long list of dignitaries from other
traditions, including the Roman Catholic archbishops of Washington and
Baltimore, and the United Methodist chief executive of the National Council
of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Many of the participants were members of
the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America, one of the 36 NCC
Karekin II, the supreme patriarch and catholicos of all Armenians, related
the history of Armenia and its conversion.
"Armenia was the first country of the world to proclaim Christianity as a
national religion," he said. King Drtad III had persecuted Christians, but
he was converted after a Christian named Gregory cured him of insanity.
Gregory, who came to be known as Gregory the Illuminator, for bringing the
light to Armenia, had been imprisoned for 13 years and was freed after the
king's sister had a dream revealing that Gregory was the key to the king's
The conversion in 301 of King Drtad and his country preceded by several
years the better-known conversion of Constantine, which made Christianity
the established religion of the Roman Empire.
The Armenian Church traces its origins to the efforts of apostles Thaddeus
and Bartholomew, who were martyred in 43 and 68, respectively, in Armenia.
Before Christianity's establishment as the state religion, its followers had
been widely persecuted. In 75, King Sanatruk and his daughter, Sandoukht,
converted to Christianity, but the king switched back under pressure from
pagan clergy and political leaders. He had his daughter put to death when
she would not give up the faith.
An estimated 600 people attended the service in the Basilica of the National
Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the largest Catholic church in the
Western Hemisphere and the eighth largest in the world.
The service was one of many that are taking place around the world during
this jubilee year.
Armenia - located in southwest Asia bordering Turkey, Iran, Georgia and
Azerbaijan - has a population of 3.3 million people and once included parts
of what are modern-day Turkey and Iran. As many or more ethnic Armenians
live outside the country as a result of persecutions during the Middle Ages
and the early 20th century.
In April 1915, the Ottoman Turks began a campaign to exterminate all the
ethnic Armenians within its borders. By 1922, 2 million Armenians had been
deported, and a million and a half had been massacred in a genocide that
Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler used as his model when he attempted to wipe out
Europe's Jewish population.
Armenia became a Soviet republic in 1921 and gained its independence 70
Now, about 1 million ethnic Armenians live in Canada and the United States.
Most are baptized members of one of the three dioceses located in these two
"Armenians have survived because of their unswerving faith," Karekin II
said. They "want to be certain that no other people in the world ever bear
the pain of genocide."
"Violence and evil ... must be rejected from the human soul," he declared.
Another featured speaker was the Rev. James Forbes, senior minister of the
nondenominational Riverside Church in New York. Forbes, who was standing in
for the Rev. Andrew Young, NCC president, spoke of "a special measure of
divine presence" at ecumenical gatherings such as this one.
"When we gather like this, there is both promise and peril," he warned.
Noting that the occasion was only a few days before Pentecost, Forbes asked
what might happen if the Holy Spirit made an early visit - "if the Spirit
helps us discern aspects of our unity that we have not previously
Observing that in the biblical accounts, a person's first response to God's
calling is often no, Forbes cautioned that the churches may not be ready for
unity and that what God wants is often unclear. The churches are in
disagreement on some major issues of faith, he noted.
"The Spirit will bring us step by step to what is in the mind of God,"
Forbes affirmed. "God's Spirit is here," he said. Although the path is
difficult, the churches must work through their differences, he added.
Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of the Baltimore Diocese of the
Catholic Church, expressed gratitude to God for the faithfulness of the
Armenian people and noted that Pope John Paul II said last year that the
Armenian church has paid dearly for its fidelity.
The Rev. Bob Edgar, top staff executive of the NCC, thanked all the
participants for joining together in the service, which was titled, "Walking
Together in the Light of the Lord." He led the prayer for Christian unity.
Music, including hymns for the colorful processional and recessional,
featured the Knar-Ani Choral Group, the D.C. Boys Choir and the renowned
organ of the Basilica.
The celebration was co-sponsored by the National Conference of Catholic
bishops, the NCC and the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America.
# # #
United Methodist News Service
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