Msgr. Barsamian: Armenian Church always close to its people
An interview with the representative of the Armenian Apostolic Church to the Holy See to mark the visit of Karekine II to Pope Francis. A theological dialogue between increasingly closer Churches. Pastoral collaboration in America and other regions. The history of a Church that has determined national identity, even under the genocides of Turkey and the USSR. Lack of clergy one of the most burning issues.
Vatican City (AsiaNews) - Yesterday, October 24, Patriarch Karekine II of the Armenian Apostolic Church met Pope Francis (photos 1 and 2). Recently, in April, he was in Rome for the blessing and unveiling of the statue of Saint Gregory of Narek in the Vatican gardens. There is no official communication on the contents of the meeting. In an informal way, it can be said that they discussed various issues, including how to support Christians in the Middle East.
In order to support and strengthen the relations of friendship between the Vatican and Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Patriarchate, Msgr. Khajag Barsamian (photo 3) will remain in Italy. The archbishop, 67, former primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in America, is now a representative of the Armenian Apostolic Church to the Holy See and a legate of the Armenian Church in Western Europe. Throughout Italy there are about 7 thousand Armenian faithful, scattered between Milan, Rome, Bologna, Venice, Florence.
AsiaNews met Msgr. Barsamian, who granted the following interview.
Excellency, can you share any progress in the relationship between you, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches?
From the theological point of view, we have dialogue and in them we discuss issues such as the Eucharist, ordination, the sacraments. There are no substantial differences. One of the most obvious differences is obviously that on the primacy of the Pope as head of the Church. Which must be studied and understood. Pope Francis, when he came to Armenia, declared that "unity is where one is no higher than the other".
In terms of theological discussions, we note that there are no great differences. Sometimes there are differences in the family of Eastern Orthodox Churches, but they are not an obstacle to our unity. In the same way, in history some Catholic theologians considered the Armenian Church as monophysite, but when studying the Armenian texts of the fifth century, hymns, we see how the two natures of Christ were accepted among the Armenians: human and divine.
From a pastoral point of view, for example in the United States, there is a strong dialogue between Catholics and Orientals. I was the president of the Armenian Church in America, and we had good relations in pastoral care. In case of marriage, if the couple were Catholic and the ritual took place in a Catholic church, we would accept to participate in the Catholic sacraments.
Let's talk about Armenia: what is the relationship between the Church and its people?
The Armenian Church is a Church of the people, therefore a national Church. Not nationalistic, but national. Faith is part of the Armenian identity, as when in the fifth century, the Persian King Sassanid wanted to force the Armenians to deny their Christian faith and embrace Zoroastrianism, General Vardan [Mamikonan] replied: "Faith is part of our skin, we cannot change it ". And they fought, became martyrs but did not give up. Also in the fifth century, there is the so-called Golden Age, when the monks created the Armenian alphabet .... Our culture, architecture, music and everything else is based on Christ.
Faith is part of the Armenian identity, so in case of a vacuum in reign or political leadership, the Church is the driving force. For example, during the period of the diaspora in the United States, Armenian Christians remained such thanks to the Church. In every parish there is a room where there are cultural programs, catechism classes, meetings for young people, where faith is taught, but also identity.
Did all this endure even during the genocide?
We lost a lot during the genocide. Before the genocide there were 6 thousand Armenian priests around the world. During the [Turkish] genocide, 4 thousand of them were massacred. Then communism arrived in Armenia, which killed about 2 thousand priests. This created a void: 98% of spiritual leadership was destroyed. And it must be said that the Communists did worse than the Turks because the Turks only killed the body, but the communists also destroyed the spirit.
Let me give you an example from my own experience. I was born in Anatolia, in the central part of Turkey. My grandmother was three months pregnant when one night they came and took her husband and all the men. When my father was born, there were no churches. But he used to say: "My mother was a mother and a father". I was born in Arapkir, where there was no church: all seven had been destroyed, but my brother and I learned to pray from my grandmother. The Church was at home. So when we moved to Istanbul, it was very natural for us to start going to church right away. I am a priest thanks to my grandmother, because the spirit [of Christianity] was there.
The communists not only destroyed the churches and annihilated the clergy: they taught atheism in schools against the Church, faith, Christ. In every [scholastic] curriculum faith was set aside.
And when Armenia chose independence from the USSR in 1991?
When we gained independence, Armenia was in turmoil. It was a moment full of challenges, and once again at the forefront, the Church offered great support. In our diocese, we immediately created a fund to support the Armenians and I personally signed an agreement with the US government for aid of up to 10 million dollars. I spoke to the State Department and I said that the Armenians needed help.
At present the Armenian aid fund has donated $ 315 million for development projects in the medical, agricultural, educational and other areas. The Church has offered its support to orphans, children, etc. And this from a single diocese, the American diocese, but certainly others also contributed.
There are still several challenges. The first is that in all the world the Armenian clergy is made up of only 815 members. This number is not enough, so new seminaries have been opened in Armenia. His Holiness the Katolikos is placing great emphasis on this aspect, and is sending many young priests to study at universities, especially Catholic ones, particularly in Rome, Paris, Europe and the United States. Some of these priests have already returned and have now become professors in the seminaries. In this way the younger generations are prepared.
Another challenge is on Christian education: this is why the Katolikos signed an agreement with the government to teach the history of the Armenian Church in public schools. On the recommendation of the European Union, religion cannot be taught at school, but history can be taught. Thus the new generations can learn something about the Armenian Church. Religious texts are written by the Etchmiadzin, as well as teachers for these courses.
The Etchmiadzin has also created youth organizations, television programs that talk about catechesis, films, various programs to communicate the faith to people.
What is the current economic situation in the country?
The main problem is that the borders are still closed with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Instead, those with Georgia and Iran are open. Armenia tries to maintain a good balance in relations with the West, the European Union and the United States, but also with Moscow, because the situation imposes it.
I myself tried to create dialogue with Turkey because I believe that opening borders could improve the economy. There were many more possibilities during the presidency of Abdullah Gül; now with Erdogan it is different. When the Holy Father Francis visited Armenia in 2016, I suggested to Card. Pietro Parolin that the Pope could also go to Turkey, crossing the border between our two countries. But the Turks did not agree to this. With closed borders, there are not many opportunities for free markets. In any case, I believe that something good is happening in Turkey: there is a development in small steps.
In Armenia, months ago there was a change of government, demonstrations by young people: These are all good signs. This means that the previous government - with all the problems it had - was able to give the new generations the freedom to start thinking freely. This is positive, and it is not automatic. For example, this is not happening in Azerbaijan.
What are the main evangelization challenges for the Armenian Church?
One of the main challenges, once again, concerns people: young people now have an open mind, but the elderly have a Soviet mentality. The Church is experiencing this process: during the Soviet domination, the clergy did not have permission to evangelise, to go out and announce as Jesus told us to. They waited for people to come for baptism, confirmations and all the rest. But now there are new developments: clergy go out, the go out to meet people, and people know that priests can go to them. It is beginning to happen, but it takes time to become customary.
Collaboration between priests and laity is also important. For example, in my American diocese, religious and lay collaborate together to carry out the mission at the diocesan and outside level, in assemblies, in parish councils. Even the laity are involved, it is not the priests who do everything. This process is also taking place in Armenia and His Holiness Karekine II is pushing a lot for this.
Another challenge is the lack of clergy. In every city, community or village there is a need for a pastor, a priest who can take care of people's spiritual needs. For example, in the United States, 85% of priests' time is spent on pastoral care: visits, assistance, organization, celebrations, liturgy. And also for the remaining 15%, the needs are pastoral. This is another necessity and reflects the vision of His Holiness the Katolikos. But it takes time. For their part, the laity also help in the administration of the dioceses.
Finally, there are programs for the care of orphans, hospitals, meetings to advise how the Church can help people start a business, even small businesses.
From the point of view of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, I must say that in our country there are Kurdish and Muslim villages that are very free. Then there are Russian, Georgian, Syrian villages and even a Jewish community with the Synagogue. There are no problems of any kind. Also in Yerevan there is an ancient mosque, which has recently been restored, I believe by the Iranians.