Obituary: Catholicos Karekin I

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The Independent Culture
CATHOLICOS KAREKIN headed in turn both the top jurisdictions of the Armenian Church, from 1983 as Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, based in Beirut, before, in 1995, taking the highest office in the Armenian Church, based in Echmiadzin in Armenia. He was elected the 131st Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians on 4 April 1995, succeeding the deceased Catholicos Vazgen I, who had led the church for nearly four decades.

However, he had an uncomfortable ride as world-wide head of the church. Elected on the second ballot at the National Church Assembly by representatives from the main Armenian communities of the world - both clerical and lay - the Syrian-born Karekin was never quite accepted in Armenia itself, where an invisible gulf still divides the diaspora from those born locally. He also suffered from what was perceived as his too-close association with the former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan (also originally from the diaspora), who had vigorously promoted his candidacy over several prominent local bishops.

Known as an eloquent speaker, Karekin was increasingly afflicted in his last years by the cancer of the larynx which would eventually kill him. He was operated on several times in the United States - unsuccessfully - and returned to Armenia in March 1999 unable to speak. During his treatment, the Archbishop of Yerevan was appointed as locum tenens to carry out his duties.

One of the main tasks facing Karekin in the former Soviet republic was rebuilding a functioning diocesan and parish structure. New priests were required and churches needed to be restored to active use or built afresh. All this had to be done at a time of economic crisis.

Within a couple of years he doubled the size of the seminary at Echmiadzin and reinvigorated the work of the Christian Education Centre. He also played a key role in drawing up the five-year celebrations in the run- up to the 1,700th anniversary of Christianity as the state religion of Armenia, to be marked in 2001.

Unlike other senior clerics, Karekin believed the "threat" from new religious movements should be countered not with state-sponsored repression but with better teaching from the Church. "Our country is not a tabula rasa, a clean slate for religious experimentation," he declared in 1994. "The Church has to go beyond opposing or condemning the new sects and cults. It must till the field. We've got to go out, meet the people in their homes, their workshops, in the villages, in the cities."

Karekin considered his December 1996 meeting with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican as a major triumph. The two spoke in private for 25 minutes before signing a joint declaration on the nature of Christ in the presence of Armenian bishops from around the world. The declaration was widely billed - at least among Catholics - as ending 15 centuries of schism between the Armenian and Catholic Churches.

However, many of the Armenian bishops - who read the declaration only on the flight out of Rome - were uneasy both at the agreed text and the way Karekin signed up to it without consulting widely. The opposition, although strongest in traditionalist and anti-ecumenical clerics around Bishop Parkev Martirosyan of Nagorno-Karabakh, was widespread.

The Catholicos saw a papal visit to Armenia as the way to cement these relations. John Paul was officially invited by the Armenian government and the Church in early 1999 and was scheduled to visit in July. However, Karekin's failing health forced the cancellation of the visit, much to the relief of the many in the Church who had opposed it; a further plan to add a one-day visit to Armenia at the end of the Pope's Polish visit also came to nothing.

He was born Neshan Sarkissian in the Armenian diaspora in Syria, and in 1946 entered the seminary of the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia, based in the Beirut suburb of Antelias. Ordained a deacon in 1949, he graduated with high honours in 1952. In the same year, he was ordained a celibate priest, taking the name Karekin, and entered the religious brotherhood of the Catholicosate.

He was granted the rank of vardapet (archimandrite) in 1955 and joined the teaching staff of the Antelias seminary first as a faculty member and later as dean. From 1957 to 1960 he studied theology at Oxford University, completing his thesis on why the Armenian Church failed to attend the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD and rejected its theological formulations 50 years later (published in 1965 as The Council of Chalcedon and the Armenian Church).

In the following decade, Karekin served as right-hand man to Khoren I, the then Catholicos of Cilicia, as well as attending religious conferences world-wide. He played a key role in bringing the Antelias jurisdiction of the Church into the World Council of Churches in 1962. From 1962 to 1965 he was an observer at the Second Vatican Council.

He was elevated to the position of senior archimandrite in 1963, consecrated as Bishop of Tehran in 1964, and in 1971 was appointed Bishop of the Irano- Indian diocese, based in Isfahan. In 1973 he was appointed Archbishop and Primate of the Eastern Prelacy in the United States, based in New York.

In 1977 Karekin returned to Beirut and on 29 May was elected Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia. He served in the capacity of "Catholicos Coadjutor" alongside Khoren until the latter's death in 1983, when he was installed as Catholicos Karekin II (confusingly, on election to Echmiadzin, he became Karekin I, as the first Karekin to hold the post). He saw as a priority the development of religious education in the Catholicosate, as well as the expansion of its research and publishing.

His years at the head of the Church in Beirut largely coincided with the Lebanese Civil War, which the Armenian community desperately tried to stay out of. Karekin worked hard to promote what he called "positive neutrality". At the worst point, he was forced to shelter with the other monks in the underground printing press as General Michel Aoun's forces in the hills above exchanged fire with the government troops below the monastery. Karekin sat by the light of hurricane lamps writing a meditation, A Cross Made from the Cedars of Lebanon. He also smoked endless cigars (personalised with "HH Karekin II" around the silk bands, a gift from a rich Armenian from Kuwait).

His commitment to ecumenism continued when he became Catholicos. He served as one of the three presidents of the Middle East Council of Churches and was for 14 years a member of the executive council and the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. He kept up a steady flow of publications on theology, history and literature.

Karekin was instrumental in improving relations between the Catholicosate of Cilicia and the Catholicosate in Echmiadzin, which were highly strained in the post-war era. He made three visits to Armenia before the fall of the Soviet Union - he arrived within a week of the devastating earthquake that hit Spitak in December 1988 - and visited many times after 1991, when Armenia regained independence.

Karekin's wide experience gave him a broad outlook and an ecumenical approach to church affairs. His outlook was not always appreciated in Armenia, where the Church has recently become more inward-looking and suspicious of the rest of the Christian world. Many ridiculed Karekin's eloquence as posturing and empty phrases. They believed he was better at presenting an authoritative and convincing survey of an issue than outlining solutions. Nor did he succeed - despite high initial hopes - in integrating the competing jurisdictions of Echmiadzin and Antelias.

He also followed the customary line of Armenian clerics in declining to spell out any church position on moral issues. "Our church is well- known in the world as an institution that recognises freedom of thought," he explained, "and we don't impose on our followers dogmatic principles on practical issues such as abortion or homosexuality."

But Karekin did have a vision which sought to find for the Armenian Church a worthy place in the wider Christian world. At home he had a vision of an educated clergy and laity, vital if the Church is to rebuild its human infrastructure after the ravages of the enforced atheism and secularisation of the Soviet period. Despite his acceptance of Ter-Petrosyan's endorsement at the time of his election, Karekin sought to keep the Church out of the political arena.

Neshan Sarkissian, priest: born Kesab, Syria 27 August 1932; ordained deacon in the Armenian Apostolic Church 1949, monastic priest, taking the name Karekin 1952; consecrated Bishop of Tehran 1964; Bishop of Iranian- Indian diocese 1971-73; Bishop of New York 1973-75, Archbishop 1975-77; Coadjutor-Catholicos of Antelias 1977-83; Catholicos Karekin II of Antelias 1983-95; elected 131st Catholicos of All Armenians 1995; died Echmiadzin, Armenia 29 June 1999.