© 1995 Dennis R. Papazian

The Election of the Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin I

by Dennis R. Papazian, Ph.D.

Awesome Responsibility

The election of a Catholicos to lead the Armenian Church into the 21st century is an awesome responsibility. The challenges facing our church are many, not the least of which are the reconversion of Armenia after 70 years of religious neglect, resisting the inroads of various Christian and non-christian sects into the fatherland, training well-qualified clergy for world-wide service, and making the teaching of the gospel and the church fathers available to the faithful in new editions both in modern Armenian and in the major languages of the world.

Furthermore, the Armenian church needs moral rejuvenation so that it can provide our people with learning and an example of piety which will inform personal moral choices and give an example of holy living which can inspire us all to high standards of personal and community conduct. In other words, the Armenian Church needs a sense of purpose and direction.

His Holiness Vasken I, of blessed memory, was a man for his time. He succeeded in preserving and developing Holy Etchmiadzin under conditions which would have discouraged all but the most determined and dedicated church leader. But these are new times. Armenia is now a free and independent state and religion is not discouraged. The challenge facing the new Catholicos is to take advantage of these changed conditions to raise standards in order to return the church to its preeminent position as the spiritual, moral, and intellectual leader of the world-wide Armenian community.

To Etchmiadzin

With these grave concerns in mind, I prepared to go to Holy Etchmiadzin as a delegate to the National Ecclesiastical Assembly which was to elect the 131st Catholicos of All Armenians on April 3rd. My trip took me from Detroit to New York and then to Amsterdam where many of the delegates from America, Canada and Europe were gathering for the weekly Armenian Airlines flight to Yerevan.

"I'm very excited about this trip," said my seat companion on the crowded flight to Yerevan. "Just think, this is the first time in 40 years that we are electing a new Catholicos and we are all a part of it."

"Yes," I replied, "it is both a heavy obligation and a great privilege. I feel humbled by the responsibility."

"But who shall we vote for?" asked my neighbor. "I am from California and would like to see our Primate, Vatché Hovsepian, elected."

"Well," I replied, "I am from the Eastern Diocese and would like to see either Archbishop Torkoom Manoogian, our former Primate, or Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, our present Primate, elected. I am a long-time friend of Archbishop Vatché, and respect him highly, but it is natural that each of us would prefer his own Primate. And I am sure that all the representatives of the various dioceses in Armenia, in Russia, and throughout the world, feel the same way. When you stop to think about it, Archbishop Karekin Nersissian, Primate of Armenia, and Archbishop Tiran Guereghian, Primate of Russia, will come with over a hundred delegates each. These delegates do not know neither Vatch‚ Hovsepian, nor Torkoom Manoogian, nor even Khajag Barsamian, and will probably vote for their own bishop. That means that a bishop outside of Russia and Armenia, unless they have special support, will hardly have a chance of being chosen. Over half of the delegates will be from Armenia or the `near abroad.'"

Arrival in Yerevan

The flight to Yerevan, except for the animated conversation, was otherwise uneventful. The airport, as usual, was a mess. Fortunately for us, the delegates from abroad were ushered into the VIP lounge and served a variety of liquid refreshments while the baggage was being unloaded. Later arrivals had to wait as much as four hours to claim their baggage. In many ways the arrival was like a family reunion. Most of the delegates from North America--Eastern, Western, and Canadian dioceses--knew each other. All were eager and filled with anticipation, as well as some trepidation, for the days ahead. Small groups formed, separated and reformed, as the delegates moved around the room talking excitedly and exchanging rumors and thoughts.

Official Arrangements

Large Intourist buses, with a police escort, were provided to take us to the Hotel Armenia in Yerevan. These Intourist buses and the police escorts were to become a part of our daily routine. Streets were blocked off on the road to Etchmiadzin and traffic police, stationed every few hundred yards, saluted as we whizzed past in convoy. Welcome signs in Russian, English and Armenian were hung over the street in the town of Etchmiadzin. Each delegate was registered and provided with a white identification tag printed in Armenian and English. It was necessary to show the tag to enter the grounds of the walled cathedral compound, the veharan (home of the catholicos and location of the meeting hall), and the mother church itself. The tags also had to be shown to enter the building where the delegates were served a buffet luncheon each day. The food, prepared in Armenian style of course, was remarkably tasty. Vegetables, rice, beans, and a variety of wholesome breads were in plentiful supply, along with modest fish dishes. After all, it was Lent, and we were expected to observe the fast.

The security personnel and the photographers each had their col- ored tags, with photographs affixed. Militia, or ordinary police, were well represented and maintained order during the many processions of the clergy to and from the veharan and the times when the president of the republic, Levon Ter Petrossian, came either to the cathedral or to the veharan with members of the gov- ernment on official visits. While access to the cathedral compound was limited to official personages, hundreds of people were always present and the air was generally filled with excitement.


Most of the delegates from Europe and the Americas stayed in the Hotel Armenia, either the old or the new section, while the delegates from Russia and Armenia, and many of the other countries of the world, were housed either in other local hotels or stayed with family or friends.

The European and American delegates, over time, began to get to know each other, but the chance to meet delegates from Russia or Armenia was limited to contact in the meeting hall, at the luncheons, in the cathedral, or in the courtyard during the breaks between sessions. Since delegates sat in assigned sections of the meeting hall, and tended to consort together at other times, there was very little intermixture.

From what we heard, most of the delegates from Europe and the Americas were elected, while most of the delegates from Russia and perhaps Armenia were appointed. No delegates came from Turkey since the government did not allow a convocation to elect them. Furthermore, many of the delegates from Russia and Armenia were un- baptized and did not know the Hayr Mer or how to make the sign of the cross.

Many of the delegates from Russia, we were told, could not speak or understand Armenian and felt estranged from the proceedings. This was our first intimation that although the election would be carried out in the most scrupulous and circumspect manner, the pro- cess of representation was flawed at its foundation. First, the size of the delegations was based on estimates of the Armenian population of the various dioceses, not on baptized church and parish members. And secondly, as noted, the majority of the delegates seemed to have been appointed. The language barrier complicated participation in the meetings, chiefly affecting many from Russia and from North America. Knowing the language, I man- aged to hold brief conversations with some delegates from Russia. They were good people with strong national feelings.

Presidential Preference

It was no secret that President Levon Ter Petrossian and his government were openly advocating the candidacy of His Holiness Karekin II (Sarkissian), Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia. It was also no secret that members and representatives of the government were actively campaigning for his election. At first, this came as a shock to most of the Americans. "How can we have a free election if the government is interfering," one could hear over and over again. Yet the knowledge that appointed delegates, frequently not baptized, and dedicated to their own leader made up perhaps the majority of the Assembly put a different light on things. It was also well known that certain outsiders had their own favorite candidates and had actively worked for their election. The question was not so much that of a free election, since all the formalities were carefully followed and delegates were free to vote their conscience, but as to which organized faction would control the outcome.

I approached one ranking government official and asked why the government had taken a position in the election. "Most of the delegates," he replied, "are good but simple people. Few of them know any candidate other than their own Primate. These are important times for the Armenian people. We have a free and independent Armenia, but we have many problems. We Armenians are divided into three dissimilar groupsūthose who live in Armenia, those who live outside Armenia in the former Soviet Union, and those who live abroad. We need someone to unite us, someone to represent us at home and abroad, someone with education and experi- ence, someone with a notable past, someone with proven leadership ability. We need to choose the person best qualified for the job, an outstanding individual. Why should not the President of the Republic and Armenia's chosen leaders give advice and counsel to those delegates who are not familiar with the candidates and their backgrounds. These issues need to be explained so that the delegates can be enlightened when they vote. It is not a question of pro- or anti-government, it is a question of what is best for the church."

Holy Obligation

On Monday, the delegates attended Holy Badarak, took holy commu- nion, and then took an oath, to which they had affixed their signa- ture, that they would vote for the best candidate regardless of personal ties, friendship or advantage. Each vowed to elect from among the clergy the one he considered to be "the best among many," the one who would work for the "well-being and benefit of the Church of Christ. . ." Each also pledged, before the holy altar of Etchmiadzin, that if he did not keep his vow that he would place himself "under the blame of our brethren" and under "God's awesome judgement. . . ." A heavy burden indeed.

Since our Church has no constitution to govern the proceedings, the Assembly had to adopt its own rules of procedure. The patriarch of Istanbul, as chairman of the Supreme Spiritual Council, presided over the meeting as chairman pro tempore until the election of officers. The proffered rules of procedure, prepared under the direction of the Locum Tenens, were accepted with the proviso that the members of the Supreme Spiritual Council, in accordance with tradition, be elected by the National Ecclesiastical Assembly and not appointed as had been done by our former catholicos.

It was then decided to move on to the election of officers. Dariel Parseghian, presiding officer of the Supreme Court of Armenia, and Dr. Raffi Hovanessian, noted community leader from Chicago, were nominated. The dean of the faculty of law at Yerevan State University was nominated from the floor. Then the vote was taken. The overwhelming support for Dariel Parseghian gave clear indication of how the future votes would go. Those from Armenia or well-known in Armenia would have the clear advantage.

Impressive Election

The nominees for election, consisting of the eight bishops who did not decline nomination, included only four apparently major candidates: H.H. Karekin II, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia; Archbishop Karekin Nersissian, Primate of the Ararat Diocese in Armenia; Archbishop Tiran Guereghian, Primate of the Diocese of Russia and New Nakhichevan; and Bishop Barkev Mardirossian, Primate of the Diocese of Mountainous Karabagh.

While it was well known that the government of Armenia was strongly backing H.H. Karekin II, there were no indications, at least to me, that the election was a "done deal." The vote was secret and carefully executed. The electors gathered in Etchmi- adzin Cathedral from which all non-delegates were excluded, with the exception of a select number of TV cameramen and a few `sergeants-at-arms.' The delegates signed the record/attendance book as their names were called, "from the greater to the lessor," diocese by diocese, and were given a ballot which had been signed by three officials and stamped with an official seal. Marking the ballot was to be done the Russian way. All candidates were listed and the elector crossed out the names whom he did not want, leaving only that name which he preferred. The ballots were also printed in Armenian, Russian, and English, leaving little chance for error. I voted my conscience and selected Karekin II.

Then the voters proceeded to the tas where three tables had been set up in front of the altar. There, at one of three tables which had been set in front of the closed altar, the delegates voted. After the vote, the ballots were taken personally to a locked container, in full view of the public, and deposited. After all had voted, each in turn, the ballot box was opened and the votes were called out aloud one by one. Delegates sat around in groups all over the cathedral, with dozens keeping the account as the votes were announced. The suspense was palpable.

The First Vote

On the first ballot, Archbishop Karekin Nersissian received 121 votes, H.H. Karekin II received 111 votes, and Bishop Barkev Mardirossian received 61 votes. The five candidates with the lowest votes, ranging from 2 to 43, were dropped and a second ballot was ordered. The whole process having taken many hours, chairman Parseghian proposed that we recess until the next morning. Night was falling and dinnertime was quickly passing. There was loud opposition to this suggestion, since many members apparently saw it as a move to give the government plenty of time to further lobby the delegates. The recommendation was excitedly voted down by a vast majority.

The chairman then declared a one-hour recess to give time for the printing of new ballots. During the recess, as was to be expected, various blocs caucused in the courtyard; and among those caucusing could be seen many members of the government lobbying for the candidate they preferred. The intense activity reminded me of the Democratic National Convention and other political convocations which I have attended.

The electors then returned to the cathedral for the next vote. This time all non-delegates were ordered out of the church, the cathedral door was locked, and the chairman was given the key. The whole electoral process was repeated exactly as before. The suspense at the counting was again palpable as the ballots were read and the names called out one by one in a loud resonant voice which reverberated throughout the cathedral. "Karekin Catholicos," . . . "Karekin Archebiscobos," . . . "Karekin Archebiscobos," . . . "Karekin Catholicos" . . . until all 400 ballots had been counted aloud. H.H. Karekin II, received 186 votes; Archbishop Karekin re- ceived 145 votes; and Bishop Barkev received 61 votes. Several ballots were invalid.

Chosen by God

The sun had gone down, the air had grown cold, and the hungry delegates braced themselves for the third and final ballot. As they spoke in hushed tones a voice rang out. It was Archbishop Karekin announcing the election of Karekin II as our new Catholi- cos. Archbishop Karekin was withdrawing from the race leaving Karekin Catholicos as the clear victor. Archbishop Torkoom immedi- ately handed the newly elected catholicos the ring and staff of of- fice. The delegates broke out in a loud and prolonged applause. Then the ancient bells of Etchmiadzin cathedral rang out joyously. A new catholicos had been elected to the seat of St. Gregory. He was chosen by God!

President Levon Ter Petrossian was informed immediately and rushed to Etchmiadzin to meet the new catholicos in the veharan. The President entered, knelt, and kissed the ring of the 131st successor to the Holy See, Karekin I, Catholicos and Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians.

Christians, of course, understand that God moves in mysterious ways and can use imperfect men to affect a proper outcome in human affairs. God's will may be manifest on a parish level, a diocesan level, or indeed for the election of a patriarch or a catholicos. Then again, God sometimes allows men to suffer the consequences of their own human and personal limitations. The hand of God, ultimately, can be seen only in time. Yet the immediate event may be a true sign of the exercise of His will.

Solidarity of Spirit

Most of the delegates were overjoyed, if one can judge by impressions, at the election of Karekin Catholicos. There was much hugging and kissing and displays of good feeling. As might be expected, however, some of the delegates were disappointed, a few even bitterly so. "He didn't get a majority vote," caustically insisted one delegate. "Who was Archbishop Karekin to throw the election? Who gave him that right?"

"An election is always political," I replied. "There is no way around it. It is in the nature of things. Archbishop Karekin knew what he was doing when he withdrew. He was preserving the harmony of the church. He delivered his delegation to make the election close to unanimous. That is the way gentlemen act. That is the way Christians act. They are not spoilers but seek the good of the whole above their own personal advantage. Didn't you see how Karekin Catholicos, in turn, embraced Archbishop Karekin and called him a younger brother who would stand at his side? It was a noble hour for both men. Indeed it was a noble hour for many of our bishops, for those who ran and for those who chose not to run. Their dignity in a time of deep personal disappointment was exemplary. They should serve as an example to us all."

Over the next few days the Catholicos invited each diocesan delegation to the veharan for a private meeting. The delegation from the Eastern Diocese of America met with him for some 45 minutes. First, he spoke in Armenian expressing his vision for the church and the work that lay ahead. His first priority was to work for the renewal of Christianity in Armenia and among the Armenians in the former Soviet Union. He spoke of the necessity of making the seminary in Etchmiadzin a source of serious learning and edu- cation. He wanted to encourage research and publication of impor- tant works of the Armenian church fathers. And, he wanted to work for the unification of the diocese and prelacy in North America. "Two dioceses in one country is unnatural," he testified.

Then the Vehapar answered questions in both Armenian and English, making sure that his words were understood by all present. He stressed that the Armenian church was not a directive church which would burden the faithful with numerous rules and regulations. "First, we must educate the Christian conscience," he said, "as a guide to the faithful. The faithful can then make their own decisions in matters of a temporal nature. The foundation of the faith does not change, but the views of the church on temporal matters may change over time with social experience."

"Let's give him a chance," said one delegate who had voted against Karekin II as we walked out of the veharan. "He is now our Catholicos and we must give him a chance. He seems to be a learned and pious man."


By this time church and lay dignitaries had begun to arrive from all over the world. There were the representatives of our sister churches, the Ethiopians, the Copts, the Malabar Indians, and the Assyrians in colorful garb and traditional dress. The Anglicans came as did representatives of the Church of Rome, the Russian Orthodox community, the Greeks, the Georgians, the Romanians, and others. Even the Iranian Muslims sent a religious representative.

An impressive service took place in Etchmiadzin Cathedral on Palm Sunday, with the Catholicos taking the oath of office and receiving the `kiss of peace' from twelve bishops, archbishops, and patriarchs. Surely this was a time of harmony and reconciliation.

After the Badarak, over one thousand delegates and other dignitaries were hosted to a festive reception held at the cavernous hall of the Hamalir in Yerevan, located near the Martyr's Monument. Visiting dignitaries gave speeches congratulating the Vehapar and presented gifts. The grand reception and celebration was a fitting end to a week-long schedule of important and momen- tous activities. It was a proud day for Armenia and the Armenian people. May the Lord God bless the Catholicos of All Armenians, Lord Lord Karekin I, and give him a long life in true doctrine in the service of His people.

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April 14, 1995

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