Armenia is one of the oldest Christian countries in the world, and yet, surprisingly, little is known about the Eurasian state and its fascinating, rich Christian heritage.
To help uncover some of its riches, EWTN premiered a film on Feb. 6 that explores this long-Christian country with a history of grisly persecution but also great beauty.
Armenia’s Christians has been produced by Rome-based independent Catholic filmmaker Elisabetta Valgiusti, who has made a series of programs highlighting the need to preserve the Christian heritage in lands where Christians face persecution.
Valgiusti sat down with the Register on Jan. 31 to explain more about the program and Armenia.
What drew you to make this film?
From the earliest times, Armenians have always been Christians — in fact, Armenia is considered to be the first Christian country. Today, it has changed a lot; the people have suffered a great deal of persecution. One just needs to mention the genocide that took place during the Ottoman Empire. That is still a very sensitive point in their history.
How else have the country’s Christians faced persecution, and how has this impacted the churches?
They have faced persecution in different areas. They were spread out in what is today eastern Turkey, so, now, there are a lot of Armenian churches that were left there. Over time, they were vandalized; some are eroding and falling to pieces; and so, of course, there aren’t any more Armenians there. In one case, on the island of Akhtamar, on the lake of Van in eastern Turkey, there is still a functioning church celebrating special feasts, but it’s just one of the few Armenian churches in eastern Turkey that are open. In contrast, in Istanbul, there are different Catholic and Apostolic Armenian churches.
Where do most Armenians live today, and what is their contribution to the world?
The Armenians and their churches are spread throughout today’s Middle East. There are very important communities in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and Egypt. After more than a millennium and half of history, one can, therefore, refer to a "little" Armenia and a "big" Armenia. And, over all this time, facing all this suffering, they’ve learned to fight, to stand up, and it has naturally affected their culture. They’re very good in business, at music, at art and crafts. They have also been very good at precision engineering. Armenians are very talented, and in the diaspora, they make a big impact, not only in terms of integration, but also in terms of achieving economic results.
Would you say that is also related to their long Christian heritage?
Very possibly. Armenia was founded as a Christian country in 301 by St. Gregory the Illuminator and King Tiridates III (whom St. Gregory helped to convert). But after years of Soviet rule, its Christian identity changed a lot.
It’s become more atheistic and secularist?
Yes, but for the past 20 years, since they’ve returned to being an independent republic, the Armenian Church, which is both Apostolic Orthodox and Catholic, has experienced a kind of renaissance. They started reopening churches, retaking possession of them and restoring them. But it’s also quite a new thing for them, and that was a little surprising for me to discover: [the country] having had such a rich Christian history.
Despite this, the country has these beautiful monasteries. They are all from different eras, and they’re really wonderful; they’re really special places. And the locations are really great, because they’re on high levels — always between 1,000-2,000 meters. The country is small but very beautiful, and the monasteries can be found in the most interesting places.
Have many been renovated since the communist era?
They did a lot of work, but there are so many — you’ll find hundreds. Most of them are Apostolic Orthodox, and the division between Catholics and the Apostolic Orthodox is part of their complicated history. The Catholics are a very small minority.
How does your film show the extent to which Christians have been able to reassert themselves after years of communist oppression?
It shows the conditions facing Christians and the practice of Christianity. The problem is that Armenia is a very isolated country. Politically, there was Nagorno Karabakh [an armed conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan that took place after the disintegration of the USSR in 1991 to May 1994]; there is still no border open with Turkey, although they are in talks again about that.
Azerbaijan is another problem, because of Nagorno Karabakh and because of religious issues. Armenians are very different people from those in the region, and there are many more Armenians in the diaspora than there are in Armenia. So they are trying to develop, to collaborate with the diaspora and rejuvenate the country, economically and socially.
Does the film show how other countries can recover after years of communism? Is it a showcase on what can be done?
It shows Armenia to have suffered the same as those other countries — they’re facing the same problems as the other former Soviet republics and all places that faced transitional problems 20 years ago, as in Russia. But it’s a bit different; because they have such a rich Christian history, they live in a very small territory, and they have this unbelievable heritage.
Would you recommend it as a pilgrimage destination?
Yes, it’s beautiful; it’s a great place to visit. The monasteries are very impressive. We also interview Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni, the head of the Armenian Catholic Church, and he has interesting things to say. His Beatitude also mentions his concern for the situation in Syria, where there are ancient and populous Armenian communities in Aleppo, Damascus and Homs.
What else can you tell us about the Catholic churches?
There are not many of them. They have some communities, schools and churches, which they are rebuilding. They are finishing the reconstruction of the cathedral in Gyumri, and there are different activities among Catholics, but their numbers are so small. There are no official statistics for the number of Catholics in Armenia, but we do know that, before 1926, there were 71 Catholic parish priests serving 172 villages, with 70 beautiful churches and a flock of about 60,000 Catholics. Generally speaking, the number of Catholics should be 10% of the Armenian population, out of a population of 3 million. Most are concentrated in the north, in the city of Gyumri, for historical reasons. There are 9 million Armenians in diaspora through Europe, the Americas and Australia.