Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian on Friday reaffirmed his stated support for the Armenian Apostolic Church and pledged to promote “Christian values” in Armenia, saying that they hold the key to human happiness.
“I will dare to say that the non-violent, velvet, popular revolution that took place in Armenia [in 2018] was for the most part based on the Christian values,” Pashinian said. “As a human being, as a politician, I myself regard the moment when I read and reread the New Testament as a turning point in my life.”
“I believe that the doctrine at the heart of it is really revolutionary in all senses, including the state-building sense, and this is the formula which can bring happiness to the Republic of Armenia, its citizens and humankind in general,” he added.
Pashinian made the comments at the inaugural session of a working group tasked with ascertaining his government’s relationship with the Armenian Apostolic Church. It comprises government officials and senior clergymen from the ancient church to which the vast majority of Armenians nominally belong. The supreme head of the church, Catholicos Garegin (Karekin) II, also attended and addressed the meeting.
Pashinian said the working group should propose “joint decisions” on contentious issues such as continued teaching of the history of the church taught in Armenian public schools. His government is reportedly intent on restricting or modifying those classes that have long been criticized some civic groups. Those plans have been denounced by conservative and nationalist figures accusing the current authorities in Yerevan of undermining “traditional values.”
Pashinian also signaled on Friday his government’s desire to review legal tax exemptions enjoyed by the church. In particular, he seemed to call for exploring the possibility of taxing some of the properties belonging to the church.
Speaking at the meeting, Garegin said the authorities should take into account “enormous human and material losses” suffered by the church during the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey and anti-religious persecutions in Soviet times. “In this context, state support is important so that the Church can restore necessary conditions and capacities for accomplishing its mission in the homeland and the Diaspora,” he said.
Without naming anyone, Garegin also criticized those who want to “restrict” that mission by citing the church’s separation from the state declared by the Armenian constitution. He argued that the constitution also recognizes the church’s “exceptional” role in the country’s history and social life.
Pashinian likewise acknowledged its “special significance” for many Armenians when he met with Garegin in Echmiadzin in November. It was apparently their first one-on-one meeting since Pashinian swept to power in May in a wave of mass protests. The premier had been very critical of Garegin in the past.
In June, an obscure Armenian group launched a series of protests against Garegin, accusing him of corruption and close ties with the country’s former government. Dozens of its members partly occupied his Echmiadzin headquarters in July.
Police waited for several days before forcing the protesters out of the Mother See. The perceived slow response prompted strong criticism from the former ruling Republican Party (HHK) and other conservative critics of Pashinian.
The HHK subsequently failed to push through the parliament two bills that would ban any demonstrations inside church premises and require the state to provide Garegin with bodyguards on a permanent basis. Pashinian’s government and political allies spoke out against the bills.