A New Start for Armenia’s Catholics

by John Hughes
photographs by Armineh Johannes

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St. Prkitch (“Savior”) Church stands atop a hill in the Armenian village of Dzithankov, and for years it has served as both a house of worship and a monument of demarcation.

“If you go to the left, you’ll find the Armenians,” explained a villager. “To the right are the Franks.”

The villager’s directions speak not only of a geographic divide, but a lingering theological and cultural divide that has survived despite 70 years of Communism.

In Dzithankov, Arevik, Lanchik and Panik – villages with large Catholic populations – there was a time when Armenian Catholic (“Franks”) and Armenian Apostolic Christians (“Armenians”) hardly mixed.

The two share the same rites and traditions, but Armenian Catholics maintain full communion with the Church of Rome. (The term Franks derives from the influence of French Catholic missionaries.)

In Arevik, 83-year-old Yeproxia Grigorian remembers when a “mixed marriage” would have caused scandal. It was practically forbidden for Franks to integrate with Armenians. But by the time her daughter Julietta married, only hardliners might have objected to a husband from the Armenian Apostolic Church, an ancient church to which 95 percent of Armenians belong.

Julietta married when most churches were shuttered by the Communists. In those days, believers were forced to conceal their faith. Subtleties and theological differences no longer seemed important.

“When I was a student, I always had faith,” Julietta, 54, said. “When I was going to exams, I always prayed and asked God for help. But I didn’t say the prayers out loud.”

Julietta’s 13-year-old daughter, Armineh, is making up for the church-going opportunities denied her mother and her grandmother. And Armineh’s generation has only their elders’ recollections to connect them to the time when the church was divided by labels and lifestyles, even in a village of only several hundred.

“There was a time,” Julietta said, “when there was a big difference between Franks and Armenians. But there is one God.”

For the Catholic and Apostolic Christians of Dzithankov that one God is worshiped in St. Prkitch Church, which, since Armenia achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, both communities share.

Anahit Harutunan, 59, was born in Geghard, a village that grew around an ancient monastery 20 miles west of Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. Her father belonged to the Communist Party and headed the local collective farm. Her mother, a devout Armenian Catholic, bridled at the suppression of the church by her husband’s party.

Anahit’s mother used to gather her 10 children for prayers in the secrecy of their home. In 1952, in defiance of the law, she had all her children baptized. Anahit’s father reluctantly agreed to the baptisms, though he dared not attend the illicit liturgy.

The experiences of Anahit and her family are typical of Armenian Catholics of her generation. “For years, there were no overt signs of Catholicism,” said Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, Apostolic Nuncio to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. “The Soviets suppressed the Armenian Catholic Church completely.”

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Tags: Armenian Catholic Church Communism/Communist