Friday, June 8, 2012

Give Me That Old Time Religion

Armenia is known as the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion, in AD 301.  It is one of the points of pride for the Armenian people - I can't tell you how many times this has been pointed out to me here.

Religion is one of the things that has helped maintain a national Armenian identity. Legend has it that Armenians are descendents of Hayk, Noah's great-great-grandson, which is why they call their country Hayastan.  [The name Armenia is derived from Aram, a descendent of Hayk so there is still the ark connection.] In 301, King Trdat III was cured of madness by St. Gregory the Illuminator, leading to his declaration of the official religion.  Much of the 1700 years since then have been spent under the control of other groups such as pagan Rome, Persia, Turkey and the Russians (and atheist Soviets). Regardless of that, the Armenian Apostolic religion has survived.   

During the Soviet period, many churches were destroyed or taken over to use as storehouses or concert halls.  For part of the time (1930-32 and again 1938-45) there was no "Catholicos" as the official head of the Armenian church is known but there has been one continuously otherwise

Catholicos Karekin II

One explanation I have heard for the mid-40s reinstatement is that Stalin needed the church organizations in its republics to help organize resistance to the Nazi invasion so concessions were made. There is an interesting article about the co-existence of Armenian religion with Soviet orthodoxy and the comments appended at the end of the article are also enlightening.

While Christianity is still the state religion, Armenia is not a theocracy in that the church does not have an official role in government.  This is likely the result of the Soviet repression of religion (the whole "opiate of the masses" thing) and how the post-Soviet movement has been toward democracy (imperfect as that movement may be).  As it reemerges from that period, many of those who are religious are more casual about it than their counterparts in other places such as the US. The church would like to change that attitude but relaxation is a hard habit to break.

Going to a church service here is truly an experience in that there is a lot of tradition evident.  For the most part there are no places to sit and when the time comes to kneel, people kneel on the floor, usually after laying down a thin cloth to keep their knees clean.

There is a lot of ritual that I can't follow (some is in ancient Armenian, while I have studied the more modern variant).  There is a raised altar where there is normally a heavy curtain (you can see it at the right of the picture below) which is closed for the duration of Lent.

Holy Week service in Gyumri

While there are no icons like you see in Russian and Georgian Orthodox churches, there are paintings all around the churches and people light candles in front of them and pray.

Some people adhere to the tradition of exiting a church backward (so as to not turn your back to God). As I wrote in my post about weddings, the church ceremony may be short but rituals abound.

But at the same time, there is a casual attitude that can be surprising.  If someone receives a phone call during a service, they normally pick it up and start talking.  Regular services tend to be on the long side and some people stay only as long as they want so you see a lot of people coming and going throughout a service, coming in to light a few candles, say a prayer and leave.

It can be confusing for an outsider as to how to act.  Once I was in the main church in Gyumri while the bishop was speaking.  I was standing with my hands in my pockets and an older man tapped me and told me to remove my hands from my pockets and stand with more respect.  In some towns women are expected to wear head coverings inside a church and they provide "loaner" scarves for those without. At one service, when people lined up for the eucharist, women and men lined up separately.  These practices are not consistent around the country so a visitor could be embarrassed by not knowing the expectations. 

Despite the unofficial role in government and the casual attitude toward practice, religion is pervasive in one form or another. Most people I see wear a crucifix.  Every taxi, bus and marshutni I have been in has had pictures of Jesus and/or saints taped near the windshield.  It is not uncommon to see people cross themselves (three times in Armenian fashion) when a church comes into their sight or if they hear church bells ringing. Some people passing churches stop to kiss the building itself.  While a lot of churches were destroyed in the past, I keep coming across small chapels along roadsides or tucked away in neighborhoods - and which are clearly being visited by people on a regular basis as evidenced by the items left inside.

Around the corner from my apartment - and I just discovered it two weeks ago
Interior of the chapel
There is a church near where I live that collapsed during the earthquake.  Despite the fact that it is open to the elements, people visit regularly as evidenced by the relatively fresh candle wax I see each time I go in.

What remains of St Gregory the Illuminator Church in Gyumri
Also, on the big religious holidays, the churches are mobbed. On several, people bring candles to carry home a consecrated flame and on Christmas people bring home bottles of holy water.

The central church, known as the Mother See of Holy Ejmiatsin, is near Yerevan. The museum inside has what is believed to be a piece of Noah's Ark and what is known as the Spear of Destiny - the spear that pierced Jesus' side when he was on the cross. 


Procession of clergy at Ejmiatsin
In the 20 years since the end of the Soviet era, the church has been trying to become more of an influence.  At the same time, other religions also are trying to establish themselves here and the attitudes toward them are not welcoming.  Many other religions are referred to as "sects".  In the media, discussion of a recent increase in the number of suicides in Armenia is sometimes accompanied by speculation that involvement in a "sect" may be a factor.  When some fellow volunteers went to look at an apartment available for rent, they were asked to kiss a crucifix to prove that they were Christian. A fellow volunteer who is Jewish told a story about when she discussed her religion with a co-worker.  At one point she was asked "But you love Jesus, right?"

There are quite a few Mormons on mission in Armenia.  When I tell people that I am a volunteer and that I work with the church, many ask if I am one.  I clarify that my work site is with the Armenian church, and point out that Mormons don't have facial hair (and if it is a more social occasion involving vodka shots, that they don't drink).  Also, good as our language training in Peace Corps is, the Mormons all seem to be fluent but I don't want to point out my relatively poor language skills.

From what I can see, people are moving toward the church more formally.  As an example, people are not baptized shortly after birth but instead when they choose to become officially Christian.  As a result, most of the baptisms I have seen (not unusual when touring churches and monasteries) have been adults.  Last year, though, a woman I know had her five year old daughter baptized.  Seminaries are being opened to increase the population of priests and deacons.  I see churches being built around the country and read about efforts to revive some of the monasteries that have fallen into disrepair.  

Working with the church while this transition is going on gives a fascinating (to me) perspective of this country as it undergoes other transitions - to a market economy, to democracy, navigating associations with Russia, the West and Iran simultaneously and countless other issues.  In times when there are so many issues for the populace to contend with - poverty, corruption, the threat of renewed war with Azerbaijan - it is not too surprising that people will turn to religion more. And, I guess it says something that, despite mass emigration, occupation, genocide and war, that this religion has lasted 1700 years.