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By Hrach Melkumian

A tiny religious group which claims to preach pre-Christian Armenia’s dominant religion marked on Thursday an ancient holiday in the country’s sole remaining pagan temple. About two hundred adherents of the faith practiced by most Armenians before 301 A.D. gathered for an annual festival in the village of Garni near Yerevan.

White and blue-robed priests lit a fire inside the Garni temple and performed a ritual sacrifice of a rooster, in a ceremony very exotic for a country which last year celebrated the 1700th anniversary of its conversion into Christianity. The rite ended with the blessing of red wine, apricot cores and willow branches, revered by the cult as symbols of Armenia.

The event was meant to celebrate the birthday of the god of fire, Vahagn, which marks the start of the new year according to the ancient Armenian calendar. March 21 is also an ancient Persian holiday known as Nowruz or new year.

“Happy New Year to those who are looking at the sun and are feeling Vahagn,” declared one of the priests, Zohrab Petrosian, addressing the faithful.

The pagan sect, which preaches a religion close to the Zoroastrianism, is one of about 50 religious organizations officially registered in Armenia. Petrosian could not give the approximate number of its followers. He said the pagan community has not faced pressure or harassment from the government and the Armenian Apostolic Church, to which more than 90 percent of Armenians belong.

The church, whose privileged status is guaranteed by the law, considers the adoption of Christianity as Armenia’s state religion in 301 A.D. to be the most important event in the nation’s long history. Both the government and the church used last year’s celebrations to stress Armenians’ Christian identity.

Petrosian said the pagan priests do not aim to challenge the supremacy of the church and even allow their followers to visit Christian worship sites.
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