Ethnic Armenians are overwhelmingly members of the Armenian Apostolic Church, whose head, the Katholikos, has his seat at Ejmiatsin. The Katholikos is elected, following the death of his predecessor, by an electoral college of around 400 delegates comprising members of the senior clergy and representatives of all branches of the Armenian Church worldwide. The present Katholikos, Karekin II, was elected in 1999. The Church is called Apostolic because Christianity is believed to have been brought to Armenia by Jesus' disciples Bartholomew and Thaddeus (or Lebbaeus as he is called in St Matthew's gospel). It is also sometimes called the Gregorian Church because it was founded in Armenia by St Gregory the Illuminator.
Religion in ancient Armenia was historically related to a set of beliefs which in Persia led to the emergence of Zoroastrianism. It particularly focused on the worship of Mihr (Avestan Mithra) and also included a pantheon of native Aryan gods, such as Aramazd, Vahagn, Anahit, and Astghik. The country used the solar Hayk Armenian calendar, which consisted of 12 months. Christianity spread into the country as early as AD 40. King Tiridates III (AD 238–314) made Christianity the state religion in AD 301, becoming the first officially Christian state, ten years before the Roman Empire granted Christianity an official toleration under Galerius, and 36 years before Constantine the Great was baptized. After the fall of the Armenian kingdom in AD 428, most of Armenia was incorporated as a marzpanate within the Sassanid Empire. Following an Armenian rebellion in AD 451, Christian Armenians maintained their religious freedom, while Armenia gained autonomy.
Around 90% of the population align themselves with the Armenian Apostolic Church, with smaller numbers of Armenian Catholics, Russian, Greek and Assyrian Orthodox Churches and the neo-Gnostic Yezidis. The Muslim population is minute. The differences between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Catholic and Orthodox faiths are subtle but ancient. The first differences arose in AD 451, when the Armenians were too busy fighting the Persians to attend the worldwide church’s Council of Chalcedon. The Armenians disagreed with the authorities in Constantinople over the nature of Christ. The Armenian Church sees the divine and human nature of Jesus Christ combined in one body (Monophysite), while the Greek Orthodox sees each nature as separate. An Arab caliph proclaimed the Armenian Church to be the most senior of the Oriental Orthodox Monophysite Churches in the 7th century, including the Ethiopian, Assyrian and Egyptian Coptic Churches, which explains the Armenian presence in both Egypt and Ethiopia. The presence of the Oriental Orthodox Church in India led to Armenian communities in cities across that country, especially in Madras (Chennai). While the Armenian Church followed neither Peter nor Helena (Rome nor Constantinople), it sometimes steered closer to Rome in the 12th to 18th centuries.
The Mekhitarist fathers, Armenian Jesuits, started the first Armenian printing press on the isle of San Lazzaro in the Venice lagoon in the 17th century. Armenian Catholics make up about 5% of the total Armenian population, and are relatively well represented in Gyumri and Yerevan. Nearly all Armenians celebrate Christmas on the Epiphany (the baptism of Jesus) on 6 January. Until the 4th century other Christians did as well, until the church in Rome moved the date to 25 December to absorb a popular pagan bacchanal on that date. The exception is the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which follows the original Julian calendar and celebrates Christmas on 19 January. The church was assimilated into Communist rule by Stalin in the 1930s, and Catholicos Khoren I died in the Gulags in 1938. During WWII the pressure relented a little, and in the Brezhnev years the church began regaining its ancient independence. During the Cold War the diaspora church fractured between the anti-Communist Catholicosate of Sis, based in Antelias, Lebanon, and the Catholicosate of Echmiadzin in Soviet Armenia. The division has been partly reconciled since independence.
Most visitors to Armenia will visit several of the churches. The layout and form of worship are quite different from that in the West. They are more similar to the Orthodox Church but there are even here some major differences in that Armenian churches do not have an iconostasis with its royal doors and, doctrinally, the Armenian Church has not adopted the views of the Council of Chalcedon (AD451) concerning the duality of Christ's nature. (The Council of Chalcedon affirmed that Christ was both fully human and fully divine, having two natures in one being. The Armenian Church did not participate in the Council nor accept its formulation. It holds that the nature of Christ is beyond human understanding.)
At one end of the church will be a raised altar dais called a bema. In active churches a curtain can be drawn across it during parts of the service. A legacy of the Soviet period is that there is still a shortage of priests, but numbers are increasing as are seminaries to train priests. (Training for the priesthood lasts seven years.) New churches are being built and old ones renovated although in many places there is a shortage of money to pay priests and repair churches. Accordingly, many churches do not have regular worship and an individual priest might have to look after several churches.
When visiting any Armenian church it is normal to buy candles on entry and then to light them (matches are provided), placing them upright in the trays of sand. The only exception to this rule is the new cathedral in Yerevan where candles are forbidden (there is a special chapel for them to the southeast of the cathedral). Women do not need to wear headscarves unless taking communion. It is correct to leave a church walking backwards so as not to turn one's back on God. It is still common for an animal (and, more particularly the salt with which the animal will be seasoned), always male and usually a ram or a cock, to be presented by a family for sacrifice. Sacrifice is usually carried out by the priest outside the church after the Sunday service. Firstly the priest blesses the animal and salt at a special stone called the orhnakar ('blessing stone') and then he sacrifices the animal at the mataghatun ('sacrifice house'). The animal will have been given in thanksgiving for some event, such as recovery from a serious illness, or as a particular request to God. It is partly a form of charity since some of the meat from the slaughtered animal will be given to the poor although the donor's family and friends will eat the rest, always boiled and never roasted or barbecued. The animals destined for slaughter are beautifully groomed before being offered to God in this way. Families will sometimes slaughter a cock themselves and evidence of such sacrifice is not uncommon at small shrines and churches. Another frequent sight outside churches is a tree or shrub to which numerous scraps of cloth are tied. Each scrap is attached by a person making a private prayer.
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