Since ancient times, religion has been one of the central elements of every Armenian’s life. With the fall of the last Armenian kingdom to the Mamluk Sultanate in 1375, the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) became the main, and often only institution uniting the dispersed Armenian population, playing a key role in education, politics and the preservation of Armenian national identity and culture. During the Armenian Genocide in 1915, for example, Catholicos [Patriarch] Gevorg Surenyants organised relief efforts for the survivors. However, after Armenia became part of the USSR in 1922, the Apostolic Church became a victim of harsh repressions driven by anti-religious propaganda, which included a ban on religious ceremonies, the destruction of churches, confiscation of their property, and the imprisonment and/or killing of priests.
New independence, new challenges for the AAC
In 1991, when Armenia gained independence, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Apostolic Church became more influential, and involved in public life, but that new-found strength also brought other challenges. While there have been other religions in Armenia for quite some time (Yezdis are the biggest religious minority; other Christian groups include Molokans, Nestorians and Russian Orthodox), the arrival of new evangelical Protestant groups in the country, with determined and professional structures, and with financial support (mainly from the US), mean that the monopoly status of the AAC has been under threat, a situation which it has been neither ready nor willing to accept. Mount Ararat and Khor Virap Monastery, one of Armenia's most visited pilgrimage sites. Andrew Behesnilian/Public Domain - CC
94% of Armenians say they are AAC members, but only a third go to church
Although the overwhelming majority of Armenian citizens – 94%, according to a recent survey by Caucasus Research Resource Centers – are nominal members of the AAC, only a third of them go to church at least once a month, whereas in neighbouring Georgia a slightly lower percentage of the population belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church (81%, according to the same survey), but almost half of them attend a service at least once a month.
At one of our focus group sessions, a young woman of 25 said: ’I don’t think a Christian has to go to Church; one can have faith without being in Church. But just as we observe our Constitution, we should also observe our religion, because that way we are united.’ Most of the group agreed with her; and her statement seems to sum up Armenians’ attitude to the Church.
Religious diversity in Armenia is nothing new, but it has changed, particularly since independence.
Religious diversity in Armenia is nothing new, but it has changed, particularly since independence. Evangelism, for example, is not a post-independence phenomenon; one has to make a distinction between 'old' Evangelism, and 'new' Evangelism. The relationship between the AAC and the Evangelical Church of Armenia (established in the 1860s), has largely been one of toleration, whereas the attitude towards the ‘new’ Evangelical Protestants has been more fraught, and often surrounded by much hyperbole and vituperation. Indeed, the numbers of Evangelicals in Armenia seems to be in inverse proportion to their visibility, and ability to upset the Apostolic Church. Census data for 2011 revealed the numbers:
29,280 Evangelical Church of Armenia
8,695 Jehovah's Witness
Although Roman Catholics are the third largest religious group in Armenia with almost 14,000 adherents, they are almost exclusively active in Shirak Province, and play virtually no role in Yerevan, the capital. It is not that religious diversity does not exist in Armenia; it is a matter of perception. Whereas the AAC could live with other religions as long as they did not threaten its position, the difference now is that the Evangelicals in Armenia today are well funded and well organised; and they proselytise throughout the country; even among the Yezidi community. Given the obstacles they face, their success is all the more remarkable.
Protestant religious organisations face several significant issues in Armenia. Firstly, it is difficult for them to get together. As Stepan Danielyan, editor of the religions.am portal, points out: ’They are often not allowed to build a church, and it is usually difficult even to rent halls for their services, because the owners are under pressure from AAC priests, law enforcement bodies, tax inspectorates, and so on.’ Flyers from Hzor Hayastan (Mighty Armenia), Yerevan, 2013. 'Say no to the sects' anti-national activities!' CC Maxim Edwards This is not the only problem. Media attitudes are also an issue: a brief analysis of online media, where the majority of articles about Protestant religious organisations are to be found, reveals generally hostile coverage of these groups, with only a small section of the media providing unbiased reporting. Admittedly, the AAC is also not exempt from media criticism, although for a different reason: while Protestant organisations are generally accused of being ‘sects’ and proselytizing, the Apostolic Church is often denounced for corrupt practices.
‘To me, anything other than our sister churches is a sect”
In other words, both groups (if one can call them ’groups‘, as the various Protestant organisations do not communicate with one another, and often have little in common), face similar problems from the media, which are openly negative towards them.
The most negative attitude, both among the public and representatives of the AAC, is reserved for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who often become victims of hate speech from various social groups. The leaflet below, which can be found all over Armenia, reads: ‘One Nation Union – No to the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect.’ Mek Azg flyer, which reads 'One Nation Union – No to the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect' It is likely that there are more anti-Evangelical flyers than there are Evangelicals in Yerevan, but, nevertheless, these leaflets pose a significant threat to freedom of conscience in the country. The Mek Azg (One Nation) organisation (and not just them) has declared all religious groups other than the Apostolic Church to be foreign spies, sent to Armenia with the purpose of wrecking the country from within.
In this situation, it would be good to see a positive attitude from the AAC towards other religious organisations, but the opposite is the case. All the experts and almost every Apostolic Church priest that we interviewed, were openly negative about the Protestants, as can be seen from the quotations taken from interviews, below.
’To me, anything other than our sister churches is a sect. One should have concerns about them. Besides cheating people and playing with their religious feelings, the sects also preach separatism and try to weaken our national and religious unity‘
(priest, Apostolic Church).
’This is not about human rights and freedoms – the real issue is that some people use pleasant words to justify activities that are neither pro-Armenian, nor proper for Christians. This is robbery. Not in a material, but in a spiritual sense‘
(Archimandrite [abbot], Apostolic Church).
Given this highly public intolerance towards other religious groups, it is especially interesting, and surprising, to find that both the Apostolic Church and the Armenian public, in general, are mostly positive about another phenomenon which has spread in the country since independence – Neo-Paganism.
Armenian Neo-Paganism is not a new phenomenon. It emerged in the 1930s, and was developed by Garegin Nzhdeh, a nationalist philosopher, statesman and military strategist of the first half of the 20th century. After the collapse of the Armenian Democratic Republic (1918-1921) and the annexation of Armenia by the USSR, he fled the country with other leaders of the ruling Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) party. Attracted by Nazi ideology, Nzhdeh attempted to create a genuine Armenian, non-Christian religion, ‘Tsegakron’ (‘the religion of the nation’). In 1991, this religion became institutionalised in newly independent Armenia, when armenologist Slak Kakosyan founded the ’Order of the Children of Ari‘ (Arordineri Ukht). Armenia also has a Neo-Nazi party, ‘Admirers of the Armenian Clan,’ registered in July 1991.
Neo-Pagans receive some funding from local government bodies
Although Neo-Paganism is generally anti-Christian, it is less disliked than Protestant Christianity. The main reason for this is politics. Although the leadership of the ruling Republican Party currently has little in common with the Neo-Pagan movement, the founder of the party, Ashot Navasardyan, was an open Hetan (Neo-Pagan); and former Prime Minister Andranik Margaryan was also sympathetic towards the movement, giving it both financial and political support. That support declined significantly with his death, but Neo-Pagans still receive some funding from local government bodies. The first-century Garni Temple in Kotayk Province is occasionally used for neo-pagan ceremonies. Z. Galstyan/Public Domain CC The second reason for the continuing presence of Neo-Paganism in Armenia, is nationalism. The journalist Yulia Antonyan mentions a telling incident in one of her articles. During a TV talk show in 2008, where a Neo-Pagan priest, an Apostolic Church priest and a representative of a Protestant group took part, the first two spoke out together against the third. The AAC priest even said that he ‘would prefer a Pagan to a Protestant Christian, because he is a true Armenian by blood.’
The main reason, however, for the AAC’s antipathy to Protestant groups, is simply that the Neo-Pagan movement in Armenia, although it could still be considered politically influential, comprises no more than a couple of hundred people, and thus does not pose a significant threat, whereas the Protestants, with their much greater numbers, and proselytising ways, do.
A broad church
Although the current level of freedom of conscience in Armenia is far from ideal, the interviews we conducted among representatives of various religious organisations, as well as ordinary people, showed that there is considerable freedom of religion in the country. Moreover, although there is still much to be done on this front, Protestant religious organisations have more freedom in Armenia than in neighbouring countries. In Georgia, for instance, a Concordat was signed between the State and the Georgian Orthodox Church in 2002, giving the latter significant advantages over other religious groups. Ethnic minorities in Armenia also do not feel any societal pressure, on either ethnic or religious grounds. What is also important, from the perspective of the fragile situation in the region as a whole, Armenia is not home to extremist religious movements; and its population is usually very tolerant towards people who profess a religion other than their own. Nevertheless, while there is (and has been for a long time) a lot more religious diversity than is generally thought, much has changed since independence. Carvings at the 4th century Etchmiadzin Cathedral, seat of the Catholicos of the Apostolic Church. Rita Willaert/Fotopedia - CC The development of religious pluralism has been problematic in many post-Communist societies, not only in Armenia. Protestant religious groups have flourished, as previously closed societies with economic difficulties became accessible to them. It is revealing that Neo-Paganism, however, is not a cause for concern in Armenian society. Neo-Paganism, whilst even further removed in terms of religious beliefs and practice from Evangelical Christianity, is more acceptable because it is seen as an 'indigenous' religious tradition, and therefore an acceptable one for Armenians to follow, unlike 'imported' Protestantism. That says a lot about subjective religiosity in the former USSR and the manner in which 'national' Churches reinforce ethnic identity; showing that the antagonism towards Protestants is not strictly due to theological differences. After the Armenian Genocide, and repression of organised religion in the Soviet era, to identify with the AAC – regardless of regular religious practice – is seen as a crucial part of what it means to be Armenian today. That some ethnic Armenians have chosen to reject the AAC for Protestant Churches is seen as a rejection of a shared heritage and a historic Armenian institution.