Ecumenism in Focus for Pope´s Visit to Armenia

EREVAN, Armenia, Sep 25, 01 ( - After visiting Kazakhstan, one of the world's "youngest" nations, Pope John Paul II arrived on Tuesday in Armenia, the oldest nation in Christendom.

The papal visit to Armenia, where he will join in the celebrations marking the 1700th anniversary of established Christianity, will have very important ecumenical implications. The Armenian Apostolic Church, which dominates the religious landscape of the nation, has drawn quite close to the Holy See in recent years. At the same time, the leader of the Armenian Church may also serve as a mediator, helping to improve ties between Rome and the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of all the Eastern Christian bodies.

During his visit to Armenia, Pope John Paul II will stay in Echmiadzin, the historic seat of the Armenian Christianity. At his temporary quarters in an ancient monastery there, he will be the guest of Catholicos Karekin II, the leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church. This unprecedented gesture-- never before has a Pontiff stayed in the "home" of a non-Catholic religious leader-- underlines the close ties between Rome and Echmiadzin.

Armenia was the first country officially to embrace Christianity: in 301, some 79 years before the official adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire. But the Armenian Church broke away from Rome late in the 5th century, after the Council of Chalcedon, because of disagreements on christological issues.

Those disagreements were laid to rest in December 1996, when Pope John Paul II and Catholicos Karekin I (the predecessor of the current Armenian prelate) together signed a formal theological statement indicating their shared belief. The Pope and the current Catholicos have subsequently said that Catholic and Armenian Apostolic beliefs are "complimentary rather than in opposition." There appears to be no theological barrier to full unity, and Pope John Paul has made no secret of his desire to restore full communion between Rome and Echmiadzin.

Some Armenian Christians maintained their fidelity to Rome even after the 5th-century break, but the geographical center of this smaller Catholic community shifted toward the Holy Land when many Armenian Catholics joined in the crusades. Early in the 20th century, the Armenian genocide-- in which millions of Armenians were killed or forced into exile by the Ottoman Empire-- continued the geographical shift of the Catholic community. Today the Armenian Catholic Church survives, led by Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX, but is centered in Lebanon.

Nevertheless, Armenian Catholics maintain a presence in their homeland, and maintain close ties with their Armenian Apostolic neighbors. The Catholic Church has become more vigorous since the collapse of the Communist regime and the arrival of Armenian independence ten years ago. The Catholic hierarchy was revived in 1992.

The Armenian Apostolic Church-- an Antiochene body, dating back to hundreds of years before the Great Schism that gave rise to most of the Eastern Orthodox churches-- enjoys a unique position in ecumenical relations between Eastern and Western Christianity. This year, the world's foremost Christian leaders have flocked to Echmiadzin to participate in the 1700th anniversary celebration. Patriarch Aleksei II of Moscow, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, left Armenia just before Pope John Paul arrived.

While Patriarch Aleksei has remained adamant in his hostility toward Rome, and his refusal to meet with Pope John Paul, many observers see Karekin II as a potential ecumenical broker-- a prelate whose status as a respected neutral observer could help him to arrange a meeting between these leaders of the two largest denominations in Christianity. Earlier this year, there were rumors that the Russian Patriarch might actually remain in Echmiadzin after his formal appearance there, for quiet talks with the Roman Pontiff. Although those rumors eventually died, the possibilities for future ecumenical cooperation remain.

Politically speaking, Armenia today is generally peaceful. Although there is a festering conflict in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, on the border with Azerbaijan, the fighting that broke out there early in the 1990s has quieted. The situation remains volatile, however, because Azerbaijan is a heavily Muslim country, subject to the influence of Islamic fundamentalist groups.

Islam is not an important influence in Armenia. But the international crisis that has arisen since the September 11 terror attack on the United States has naturally raised concerns about the impact of radical Islamic groups, and of terrorist organizations, throughout the geographical region. As Pope John Paul strives to cement closer ties among Christians during his visit to Armenia, he will also be speaking out in response to worldwide concerns about the tensions between the world's great religions, and the prospects for maintaining world peace and security.

CWN - Catholic World News
25. september 2001

av Webmaster publisert 26.09.2001, sist endret 26.09.2001 - 16:48