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A church grows. In his history, Agathangelos records that while instructing the king and his court Gregory dreamed that Jesus descended to earth and struck with a golden hammer the spot where Gayane and Hripsime were martyred. He instructed Gregory to build churches to enshrine the remains of the martyred virgins and a church to commemorate the “place of the descent,” or Etchmiadzin in Armenian.

Holy Etchmiadzin “is the heart of the Armenian nation,” writes the 19th-century Armenian poet, Berj Proshian. “Enter inside, kiss the point of descent and you will have kissed the entire expelled nation, dispersed throughout the universe.”

A complex of churches and shrines that, according to tradition, were constructed with stone quarried by the king from Ararat, Etchmiadzin became Gregory’s seat as catholicos, or chief prelate of the church. Until the death of Catholicos Sahak the Great in 438, catholicoi descended directly from Gregory.

Armenia’s powerful neighbors, the Eastern Romans (Byzantines) and the Persians, though constantly at odds, agreed in 387 to divide the kingdom, which had served as a buffer between them. Though an independent Armenian nation ceased, the Christian faith flourished among Byzantine Armenians. But the Armenians of Persia were unsuccessfully coerced into adopting Zoroastrianism.

To strengthen the faith among his embattled flock, most of whom lived in Persia, Catholicos Sahak commissioned the monk Mesrob Mastoc to work on an alphabet that would render the tenets of the Christian faith in the vernacular. Devised in 405, the first words rendered by Mesrob came from Proverbs: “That men may appreciate wisdom and discipline, may understand words of intelligence.”

Charged with translating Scripture, the works of the church fathers and the works of classical Greece and Rome, Mesrob and his disciples traveled to the primary centers of learning, Alexandria, Athens, Constantinople and Edessa. Their work introduced the Armenian Church to the great theological disputes of early Christendom, particularly questions regarding the person and nature of Jesus and his relationship to the Creator. But rebellion against the Persians prevented the Armenians from actively participating in these debates, especially the Council of Chalcedon (451), which attempted to settle the differences promoted by the rival theological schools of Alexandria and Antioch.

In 448, the Persian emperor demanded that his Armenian subjects renounce Christianity, which he identified as a symbol of their loyalty to his Byzantine rival.

In response, a national council of church and civil leaders gathered near Khor Virap, the dungeon that had once imprisoned Gregory. While declaring civil obedience to the Persian emperor, the council declared their steadfast spiritual loyalty to Christ: “Nobody can move us away from this faith, neither angels, nor people, nor sword, nor fire, nor water, nor any severe ordeal. For we have a covenant of faith, not with human beings…but an indissoluble vow with God, from whom it is impossible to stay away neither now, nor tomorrow, nor for ever and ever.”

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Tags: Armenian Apostolic Church Church history Oriental Orthodox Catholicos Karekin II