By Gayane Danielian
Several dozen state-employed scholars demonstrated Monday against highly controversial government plans to hand over their historically famous building in central Yerevan to the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church who wants to build a new official residence in its place.
The protesters, who work for two research institutes of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences specializing in linguistics and economics, accused Catholicos Garegin II of extravagance and vowed to defy eviction orders from the government.
“We will not keep silent,” Lavrenti Hovannisian, deputy director of the Hrachya Acharian Linguistic Institute, told RFE/RL. “We can work anywhere, but we just want the state to preserve this building as a scientific institution.”
Referring to the quasi-official church, Hovannisian said: “They could support a hundred hungry families with that money.”
“Having two church headquarters in a small country like this is too much,” agreed another protester.
The government has already decided to transfer the property to the church free of charge after a request from Garegin. The two institutes’ staff wrote to Prime Minister Andranik Markarian last week, asking him to reverse the decision. In a separate move, their directors requested an audience with the Catholicos, hoping to convince him to reconsider his plans. However, the latter has not yet agreed to meet with them.
Like most of his predecessors, Garegin is based in Echmiadzin, a town 25 kilometers west of the Armenian capital. He reportedly intends to tear down the building to free up space for his second residence.
The plan has met strong resistance from academic circles who view it as a further blow to Armenian science which has been hamstrung by an acute lack of state funding since the Soviet collapse. The building served as the headquarters of the Armenian Academy of Sciences when it was set up in 1943 and is also seen by many as a historical monument.
The protesters were particularly furious with Fadey Sargsian, the elderly chairman of the Academy who has rubber-stamped the government decision. “In any civilized country, it would be impossible to demolish an Academy building and give its land to the church,” Hovannisian said. “This is just as dangerous as the destruction of churches in the 1920s and 1930s.”
Incidentally, the building in question had been constructed in the place of a medieval Armenian church complex demolished by Soviet Armenia’s government in the 1920s. Only one of its chapels survived Soviet rule. Garegin apparently wants to incorporate it into his would-be Yerevan compound.
Several other old churches in Yerevan also faced destruction at the time to make room for new secular buildings. Among them is the city’s largest and most popular movie theater.
The Armenian Church, which now enjoys government patronage after decades of Soviet persecution, has not yet reacted to the potentially damaging controversy.