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The arrival of the Crusaders changed the fate of the new Armenian state and the orientation of the Armenian Church. European military aid, intermarriage and family alliances buttressed the kingdom, which survived until 1375. The catholicoi (who settled in the Cilician capital of Sis in 1293 after wandering from monastery to monastery for nearly two centuries) increasingly adopted Latin (Roman Catholic) customs and liturgical practices as contacts with the Catholic Church increased.

While these initiatives nurtured dreams of restoring full communion within the universal church, they also provoked schism, leading to the establishment of an independent Armenian Apostolic patriarchate in Jerusalem and the eventual restoration, in 1441, of Etchmiadzin as the permanent seat of the catholicosate – far from the reaches of Catholic Europe in the Shiite Muslim realm of Persia.

Modern tragedies. In May 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, and with it what little that remained of Byzantium. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror – wishing to restore Constantinople’s imperial past – repopulated his city with, among others, Armenians. In 1461, he established the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople and appointed Constantinople’s Armenian bishop as patriarch, charging him with the spiritual and secular oversight of all Armenians in the empire.

For more than four centuries, the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire thrived: Merchants traded luxury goods and spices, bureaucrats served the sultan, artisans sumptuously appointed churches and bishops guided their eparchies, which until the eve of World War I numbered 52. But the rise of national movements throughout 19th-century Europe, which began in Ottoman provinces in the Balkans, significantly altered the position of the empire’s Christian minorities.

The empire’s Armenian communities, whose aspirations were nominally supported by France, Great Britain and Russia, were violently targeted, beginning with isolated pogroms in 1894 and 1895. Eventually, these incidents spread throughout the empire, fueled after the Ottoman Turks entered World War I as an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary. By 1923, some 1.5 million Armenians perished in what many today call the Armenian Genocide. Those who survived, perhaps a quarter of a million people, fled to Lebanon and Syria. (Turkey disputes the term genocide and the number of the dead and expelled.)

Turkey’s Armenian bishops and priests suffered the same fates as their people. Ancient monasteries and shrines were leveled and properties appropriated. The Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia, which had been centered since the 15th century in a monastery in Sis, a largely Armenian town in southern Turkey, fled to the Syrian city of Aleppo. Eventually, the seat of the catholicosate finally was settled in the Beirut suburb of Antelias. Today, Catholicos Aram I guides some 800,000 Armenian Apostolic Christians living in Cyprus, Greece, Iran, Lebanon, North America and Syria.

Though spared the horrors of genocide, Etchmiadzin (which was absorbed by Russia along with the rest of the Armenian community of the Caucasus by 1828) faced the anarchy associated with the unraveling of tsarist Russia, the rise of a fiercely atheistic Communist regime in 1920 and the incorporation of Armenia into the Soviet Union in 1922.

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