CATHOLICOS KAREKIN I of Etchmiadzin, head of the eight-million-strong Armenian Orthodox Church, sees the Catholic Church in his country as an ally. Now free from the yoke of communism, the former Soviet republics, including Armenia, are facing new challenges from religious sects, many of them from the United States. The Catholicos, 65, served as bishop of the Eastern diocese of the Armenian Church in the United States from 1973-77. From 1977-1983, he was Catholicos of Cilicia, Lebanon, the seat of the Church that had split from the Church in the Armenian homeland, which was perceived to be controlled by the communist authorities. Officially, the Churches are still apart, although Karekin's election as Catholicos of Etchmiadzin, in 1995, was a clear signal of reconciliation.

Catholicos Karekin visited John Paul II in December, when the two signed a declaration ending 1,500 years of disagreement over Christ's identity. It was his first meeting with the Pope as leader of the Armenian Orthodox Church.

The Oriental Orthodox are in communion with each other, but have been divided from the rest of Christianity since the Council of Chalcedon in 451, because of the council's Christological teachings.

The Roman Catholic-Oriental Orthodox dialogue as well as dialogue between Catholics and the individual Oriental Orthodox churches have concluded that the disagreements of the fifth century were based on differences in terminology and culture, not on a different understanding of Christ.

According to the Council of Chalcedon, Christ was perfect God and perfect man, one person with two natures that are undivided and unconfused.

In rejecting the formula of Chalcedon, the Oriental Orthodox professed the “the one incarnate nature” of Christ in order to avoid what they saw as compromising the unity of Christ's person or holding that Christ's humanity was absorbed by his divinity.

The new Roman Catholic-Oriental Orthodox declaration highlights the great advance in the Churches'search for unity in Christ, the two leaders said after a 25-minute private meeting.

“perfect God as to his divinity, perfect man as to his humanity, his divinity is united to his humanity in the person of the only-begotten Son of God, a union that is real, perfect, without confusion, without alteration, without division, without any form of separation,” the declaration said.

Catholicos Karekin attended three sessions of Vatican II and has maintained good relations with Rome ever since. The Register spoke with him recently about the challenges facing the Armenian Orthodox Church.

Register: What is the situation of your Church?

Karekin I: The Orthodox Church in Armenia is passing through an extremely crucial time. Think of it this way: What would the situation of Churches in America be if for 70 years all the churches were closed, some turned into cinemas, theaters and other public buildings, the name of Christ was never mentioned, and if it was, it was only as a caricature in atheistic propaganda? People in the West do not realize that what is most damaging is not the refutation of the truth of the Christian faith, but the aggressive, well-planned, well-devised policy of eradicating all vestiges of Christianity in the public fabric of the life of the people.

We face a vacuum today, an absence of the knowledge of what the Gospel is and the true moral principles of the preaching of Christ. The task of the Church is how to re-educate and to bring back all that we Armenians have believed in for more than 17 centuries. The challenge is to relate the Christian faith to the problems of the daily life of the people. To do this, we need new men and women to serve the Church in this new setting with these new challenges.

How do you go about rebuilding?

Our priority is to give great emphasis to the formation of the new clergy and teachers of religion, opening Sunday schools, and giving religious courses in the public schools that have expressed a wish to include religion in their curriculum.

We also need new church buildings because none were built during the time of the Soviets. Those we have inherited from the past need much repair. It is a heavy burden upon us to have to repair all these churches.

The Church unfortunately does not have any permanent source of income. Its financial well-being depends almost exclusively on the free donations of the people. But with the financial resources of the people at such a low level today, it is unrealistic to expect anything from them. Part of the support for the Church comes from the Armenians in the diaspora and on a very small scale from ecumenical sources.

What is your relationship with the Latin-Rite Armenian Church?

We maintain a good fraternal relationship with them. The Armenian Catholic Church celebrated its 250th anniversary a few years ago and we welcomed the bishop that they appointed for the Armenian Catholics living in Armenia. We welcome their collaboration and we have always talked with them and made it very clear that this is a time to strengthen the local indigenous Church and not to enter into a policy of competition or confrontation. Proselytism is avoided.

Many Americans involved with religious sects are active in your country now. How is your relation with them?

They are a deviation from the main-line Churches and they are very aggressive. They absolutize their own faith. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, think they have the only true faith and all the rest are false.

The extremism of sects is a distortion of the true spirit of openness and concern for the others that we have in Christ and in the Gospel. It bothers me that they use so many non-religious factors in their propaganda that we have trouble countering, mainly financial and other non-religious incentives. How can we deal with this in the Armenian Church at such a time of extreme social poverty? How can we compete with sects when they come into the country with great resources, distributing goods and money to people in the name of school children, in the name of charity, in the name of help for the sick and so on. It is a misuse of religious freedom.

What do you see for the future?

We should join hands together and ask if we are the salt as Christ wanted us to be. Or have we lost our saltiness? If Christ wanted us to be the water, living water, are we? Or are we so mixed up that we have lost the clarity of our faith? The interchange between secularism and the sacred has to be bridged through theological discussions. We want to cooperate with other Churches and want to have programs that are designed to meet the needs of all Armenians. I think we can benefit from collaboration.

—Cornelius Hulsman