Armenian religion, a school of Orthodox christianity, having ancient roots, has always played an important role in the Armenian history and culture.
The role of the Armenian Religion has undoubtedly remained vital up to present days despite the fact that Armenia has always been surrounded by states where Islam was the dominating faith.
Try to ask an Armenian to tell you something about his nation and he will proudly say that Armenia is the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion.
Thus, it is not accidental that 94 percent of Armenians consider themselves to be Armenian Christians and belong to the Armenian Orthodox Church, or as Armenians call it Armenian Apostolic Church.
Keep reading to learn the basic facts that everyone should know about the first Christian nation.
Armenian Religion, What Religion is It?
Though 94 percent of the population of Armenia belongs to the Armenian Orthodox Church (Apostolic) there are other religious communities in Armenia as well.
However, it is exceptionally the Christian faith that has shaped the entire course of Armenian history and culture. Christianity was first introduced in the first century AD by two of Jesus’ twelve apostles – Thaddeus and Bartholomew – who preached Christianity in Armenia.
Due to these two founding apostles, the official name of the Armenian Church is Armenian Apostolic Church which is a part of Oriental Orthodoxy.
How Armenians Adopted Christianity?
By the way the story behind the adoption of Christianity is very interesting and worth knowing.
Influenced by the fact that Gregory was the son of his father’s enemy and finding out that he is a Christian, the Armenian King Tiridates III imprisoned St. Gregory by throwing him into a prison-pit (Khor Virap) in the town of Artashat to be starved to slow death.
During that very year, the king ordered to kill those who hid Christians and to arrest all the Christians in Armenia confiscating their property.
Thirteen years later when Tiridates suffered a terrible illness, his sister Khosrovidought saw in her dream St. Gregory coming out of the dungeon and healing her brother. She insisted that only Gregory could cure the King. The King ordered to open the dungeon and then something unbelievable happened.
After thirteen years, a man with a long beard, dirty clothes and darkened face came out from the pit. It was St. Gregory. Through the power of God St. Gregory cured the King. The latter said to St. Gregory: “Your God is my God; your religion is my religion.”
St. Gregory the Illuminator became the first Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the supreme spiritual head of all the Armenians. St. Gregory is considered one of the most important saints also in other Christian countries.
With the support of the royal family, Christianity spread very swiftly throughout Armenia and within a short period of time the new Armenian Religion permeated all aspects of Armenian life and culture.
The Importance of Armenian Religion for Armenians
Beyond its role as a religious institution, Christianity and the Armenian Church have always played a significant role in shaping the course of Armenian history.
In the long periods when Armenians did not have a state of their own, the church remained the main unifying force of the Armenian nation. Thus, Armenians closely pinned their hopes of existence and preservation of their nation on Christian faith.
They have survived wars, persecution and difficulties all in the name of Christianity.
As already mentioned the Armenian Church has survived many turbulent times throughout its history. One of such significant events is the battle of Avarair which took place in AD 451.
During this time, Armenia faced growing pressures from the Persian King Yazdegert II, who had issued an edict forcing Armenians to renounce Christianity and embrace Zoroastrianism.
In 451, headed by the commander-in-chief Vartan Mamikonian, Armenians fought against the Persians to preserve their faith. Finally, in 484, the peace treaty of Nvarsak was signed between Armenia and Persia. Persians acknowledged the right of the Armenian nation to freely practice Christianity.
Modern Era concerning Armenian Religion
It is also worth mentioning that under the Soviet rule, the Armenian Religion started facing new challenges. It was because of Armenian Bolsheviks who carried out anti-church policies. During that period, almost all the Armenian churches were closed down in Armenia, Artsakh (Nakorgo-Karabakh) and in all the republics of the Soviet Union.
Some of the churches were destroyed and most of them were turned into public buildings and storehouses, while some notable monasteries were preserved as historical monuments. Religious activities, such as baptism, were prohibited. Anyway, Armenians secretly could preserve their Christian faith, but some Christian rituals and traditions were changed, or forgotten.
However, a new phase for the Armenian Church started with the independence of Armenia in 1991. After the independence, many books were published, “Shoghakat” TV studio was created dedicated to the history, religion, traditions and mysteries of the Armenian Church.
In 2002 the official website of the Armenian Apostolic Church was created which contains necessary information about the history, spiritual heritage and current status of the Armenian Church, as well as the works of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.
Which is Spiritual Home of Armenian Church & Armenian Religion?
When you come to Armenia don’t forget to visit the Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin which is considered the oldest Christian cathedral in the world and the most recognized landmark of the Armenian Church.
The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin is the spiritual and administrative headquarters of the worldwide Armenian Church and the center of the faith of the Armenian nation.
St. Gregory chose the location of the Cathedral relying on a vision that he had. In his dream, he saw “Miatsin”, the Only Begotten Son of God, with glittering light on his face descending from the Heavens and with a golden hammer striking the ground where the Cathedral was to be located.
This is how the Church got its name. The Armenian word “Etchmiadzin” refers to the place where the Only-Begotten Son of God descended.
The Cathedral is composed of the Mother Cathedral of the entire Armenian Church, a monastery and monastic brotherhood, the residence of the Catholicos of all Armenians and various religious and cultural institutions, such as the Kevorkian Theological Seminary and a museum.
Armenian Religion: Who is the Chief Bishop of the Armenian Church?
The Chief Bishop and the Supreme Head of the Armenian Church is the Catholicos of All Armenians.
Among them are many Catholicoi who have devoted their lives to the development and betterment of the Armenian nation. For example Nerses I the Great (4th century), Mkrtich Khrimian (1820-1907), Vazgen I (1908-1994), etc. There have been long periods when the Seat of the Catholicos had to be transported to safer regions.
Since 1441, the Holy See of Etchmiadzin has once again become the center of the Armenian Church. During that time Kirakos I Virapetsi was elected as the new Catholicos of all Armenians in Holy Etchmiadzin. At the same time the retiring Catholicos in Sis Gregory IX Mousabegian (1439–1446) remained as the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia.
Therefore, since 1441, there have been two Catholicosates in the Armenian Apostolic Church with the primacy of the Catholicosate of All Armenians in the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin recognized by the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia.
Currently Aram I Keshishian is the head of the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia and has been Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church since 1995. He resides in Antelias, Lebanon.
The Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians is His Holiness Karekin II. He is the worldwide spiritual leader for Armenians both in Armenia and in Diaspora. He is the 132nd Catholicos residing in the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.