By Mariam Harutiunian, Agence France Presse
The heads of Christian churches from around the world meet in Yerevan on Friday to celebrate the 1,700th anniversary of the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of Armenia.
Twelve years before the Christian faith was adopted by the Roman Empire, going on to become the dominant faith in Europe, Armenia -- one of the first countries to be visited by Christ's followers -- was officially baptised in 301 under its king Tiridates III. The Armenian church broke with the world Christian church following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 over an issue of doctrine known as Monophysitism, and since then it has remained largely isolated from the rest of Christendom.
During the many centuries of invasions, whether by Arab, Turkish, Persian or Russian forces, the church was the main vehicle for the preservation of Armenian culture and identity. The anniversary celebrations begin Thursday with a huge choral event involving 1,700 young singers in a stadium. On Friday more than 20 patriarchs, the heads of sister churches from around the globe, will join in an ecumenical liturgy celebrated by Catholicos Garegin II.
"This is an event entirely unprecedented in the history of Christianity," the organiser Archbishop Hovnan Terterian said. The presence of so many heads of churches represents, in his view, recognition of the Armenian church's historical pre-eminence and also has a political significance.
The visiting dignitaries are to travel to Tsitsernakaberd, the site of a monument to the 1915 massacres of Armenians in Turkey which Yerevan regards as a genocide.
This "is equivalent to recognition of the genocide," he noted, his comment a reflection of the fact that the bloody 1915 events are not universally recognised as a genocide despite Armenian claims to have it described as such. Armenians believe that 1.5 million of their people died during the mass killings and deportations under the Ottoman empire. Turkey has set the figure at 300,000.
On Saturday the religious leaders will make addresses at the patriarchate, going on to bless jointly the holy unction in a ceremony which thousands of pilgrims are expected to attend. The high point of the celebrations is to be the blessing Sunday of the new Cathedral of Saint Gregory the Illuminator, the first Armenian Catholicos, in central Yerevan. The cathedral contains relics of the saint that were handed to Garegin II by Pope John Paul II during a visit to the Vatican last November. The relics had been preserved at Naples, in southern Italy, for five centuries.
The Catholic pope is due to visit Armenia from September 25 to 27, with the patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomy visiting from October 27 to November 4.
Garegin II, elected on October 27, 1999, is the 132nd Armenian Catholicos. He resides at Echmiadzin, near Yerevan, where the first Armenian cathedral was built in 303.