What it means to be of Armenian Apostolic faith today

“[…] I yearn for my Cilicia; the land where I first saw the light […]”

It is that time of the year, the month of April, when the world commemorates the 1.5 million Armenians who perished in the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The following is my personal journey of reconnecting with my Armenian Apostolic faith and why it is important to write about it during this period of mourning.

Church History

Sis was the capital of the medieval Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, it was also the seat of the Holy see of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church (otherwise known as the Armenian Orthodox Church). Though, throughout history, the seat of the Church had been moved from city to city, as Armenia was always threatened by neighboring enemy states.

Mired with miracles and legends, Armenia is claimed to be the first Christian nation, when King Dertad III (westernized as Tiridates III) converted to Christianity in 301 A.D., under St Gregory the Illuminator, and with him, the Armenian nation.

The last sovereign Armenian entity, the Kingdom of Cilicia, fell in 1375. Because of this, for 543 years, the Armenian Catholicos, and subsequently the Armenian Church, assumed the leadership of the Armenian nation. It wasn’t until the establishment of the First Republic of Armenia in 1918, that Armenia became sovereign and independent again. Thus, we can see that the role the Armenian Church played for more than 500 years has been far greater than that of a mere religious institution.

Genocide, Identity, the Church and I

After the Armenian Genocide, the Armenian Church leadership lost its seat in Sis, today’s Kozan in Turkey, and escaped and found refuge in Lebanon, and soon after in the 1930s established its seat in Antelias, Lebanon. With thousands of refugees — Genocide survivors — the Church had to re-affirm its role as protector of the community, but alas, this wasn’t the case, as the devastation was so grand that at one point in time, the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias was to be abolished.

Genocide is the systematic extermination of a population, in whole or in part, for the sole reason of being of a certain ethnic, racial, religious or national group. The Armenians were targeted for being Armenian and for being Christian. As were the Assyrians and the Greeks who suffered a similar fate.

Unlike other Armenians’ personal stories, my parents did not shy away from telling me about the atrocities of 1915. From a young age, I was heavily invested in the study of the Armenian Genocide through the reading of my father’s books and listening to family stories.

My people — the Armenian people — were meant to be exterminated from the face of the earth. “Kill every man, woman and child” is not to be taken lightly, and saying that I am not supposed to be alive today is not euphemism. The history of Armenians is in fact that of music, architecture, literature, trade and wealth; but it is also that of suffering, pain and survival. The Armenian Genocide created a rift in our history — the pre-Genocide and the post-Genocide. The latter is consumed with Turkey’s continuous denial of historic facts and through which a collective form of suffering has been passed on from generation to another, and often times, the descendants experience a much different kind of suffering than what the survivors themselves had experienced.

For a long time, I tried to distance myself from everyone else and tried to figure things out on my own without resorting to the different kinds of feelings and emotions the average Armenian experiences. I wanted to study our past through emotion-less facts.

I do not want to be a descendant of Genocide survivors. It makes me sick to my stomach. Though, I am one, and I will carry this burden on my shoulders, on my back, in the depths of my guts and in my heart till I part this world for the next. What I ‘want’ or ‘do not want’ is quite irrelevant in this case. I also do not hold this fact as a badge of honor.

I never saw anything special in being Armenian; it represented conservatism, nationalism and bigotry for me; everything I resent in life. But that’s not true anymore. As an Armenian, I have come to realize that I have the privilege of being part of a tight-knit and small — big — family. A lot of work is to be done with respect to our people-hood, changing the mindset of people doesn’t happen overnight, but it is possible.

To me, Orthodoxy is the refusal of reform, an anti-liberal, conservative, traditional and patriarchal institution. It is still all of those things, but I don’t mind it anymore. Some things, to some extent, must be left as it is — as it has always been. My ancestors did not walk the deserts of Der Zor without food or water, for their survival and mine, for me to hold a grudge against my Church. There are only 4 million people in the world who have the honor to call themselves Armenian Apostolic Christians of the Holy See of Cilicia. One cannot convert to Armenian Orthodoxy; you have to be Armenian to be a member. I am a member of the oldest national Christian Church in the world — how many people can say that?

April of every year must be a time of renewal and rebirth for us Armenians. Our Christian faith was a major factor in the Young Turk Government’s quest to exterminate us; we must value the national role it has played in safeguarding our identity as Armenians. We cannot erase our Christian past, whether we agree with its teachings or not either. April is a time to mourn, and it is important to do so. Regardless, it is also important to re-examine what constitutes our identity and refuse to have a tragedy define who we are, thereby giving the perpetrators more agency than they deserve. We need to be ready to forgive, but only when the time is right.

“ […] I’ll sleep in my Cilicia; the land where I first saw the light.”

Photo: The Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon

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