Obituary: Catholicos Vazgen I

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Levon Karaped Balgian, priest: born Rodoto, Romania 20 September 1908; ordained priest 1943 with the religious name Vazgen; Bishop of Diocese of Romania and Bulgaria 1951- 1955; Catholicos (Patriarch of Armenia) 1955-94; died Yerevan, Armenia 18 August 1994.

VAZGEN I, head of Armenia's national church for nearly 40 years, was a conciliator who happily accepted the exigencies of life under sometimes uncongenial regimes. As Catholicos he was respected by Armenians around the world, however much some may have hoped for a more decisive embodiment of Armenian identity.

Vazgen was born Levon Karaped Balgian into an Armenian family in the village of Rodoto in Romania in 1908. Graduating in 1936 from the faculty of philosophy and literature of Bucharest University, he first embarked on a secular career, becoming a teacher in Bucharest's Armenian school, where he worked for several years. He later took up theology, and after a year's study at the theology faculty he was ordained priest in Athens in 1943, taking the religious name Vazgen. In 1951 - when the Communist regime was firmly established in Romania - he was consecrated bishop of the combined diocese of Romania and Bulgaria. In 1954 he was made a member of the Supreme Spiritual Council of Echmiadzin, the central governing body of the Armenian Church which is based in the church's centre near Yerevan.

Vazgen had already visited Armenia several times, and had published a book, Under the Sun of the Homeland (1954), which enthusiastically praised Soviet rule. He had also been decorated with the Romanian Star of the Republic for his pro-government work in the peace movement.

Following the death in 1954 of Catholicos Kevork VI, whose collaboration with the Soviet authorities had not prevented a catastrophic decline in the fortunes of the church, Vazgen was elected Catholicos at the Church Assembly held in Echmiadzin in September 1955, and anointed on 2 October.

He was a surprising choice. He was only 47 and represented a minor diocese. But the majority of the assembly was made up of Soviet citizens, who had to elect a candidate acceptable to the Soviet authorities. Key Armenian dioceses in the Middle East were not represented.

Immediately after his election Vazgen requested Soviet citizenship, something 'that has been my dream for years'. He then set out, despite the problems within the church in Armenia, on a three- month tour of Middle Eastern diaspora churches. The main aim was to secure the election of a pro-Soviet Catholicos in the rival Catholicosate of Cilicia, based in Beirut. He was unsuccessful, but from Cairo immediately denounced the election of the new Catholicos Zareh as 'irregular'. While in the city he met President Gamal Abdel Nasser, then being wooed by the Soviet Union. On a later leg of the journey to Western Europe he visited the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher.

The Soviets were impressed with his diplomatic skills and, at a key meeting with the Soviet prime minister, Marshal Nikolai Bulganin, in Moscow on 12 May 1956, Vazgen won concessions for his church. These included the reopening of churches, the enlarging of the Echmiadzin seminary and the ability to accept money for church work from Armenians abroad.

Vazgen saw good relations between local and emigre Armenians as an important part of his programme, and in 1960 made a further visit to emigre communities in Europe and the Americas. He also made efforts to heal the rift he had exacerbated in 1955-56 between the Echmiadzin and Cilicia jurisdictions. He took the Armenian church into the World Council of Churches in 1962 at the same time as other Soviet churches joined.

Vazgen's 60th birthday was celebrated with pomp in 1968 and he was decorated by the president of the presidium of the Armenian Supreme Soviet. The following year he turned the seven-yearly blessing of holy oil into a high-profile event. The Vatican and WCC were represented , and 25 Armenian bishops attended, although not Catholicos Khoren I of Cilicia, who declined his invitation.

The crowning point of Vazgen's overtures to the Vatican came in 1970 when he made a long-sought visit to Rome to meet Pope Paul VI. Asked by a foreign correspondent just before the visit whether he often went there, he replied with a sense of history as well as humour: 'Oh no, we haven't had any contact since the fifth century. But I'll talk to him about it when I go.'

Vazgen also made the most of visit to Echmiadzin in 1977 of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Donald Coggan. Ever after, Vazgen pointed out proudly to British guests Coggan's entry in the huge visitors' book that sat on his desk. His return visit to Britain, to meet Coggan's successor, Dr Robert Runcie, took place in 1983. And Dr George Carey visited Vazgen in Echmiadzin in April last year.

Throughout his long career Vazgen remained cautious on political questions, fully aware that the well-being of his church relied on the benevolence of the Soviet state. During the human rights ferment of the 1970s, and the rise in Armenian nationalism, Vazgen did not speak out publicly for national and civic rights, nor did he support appeals for the release of Armenian political prisoners, despite calls from nationalists.

In the late 1980s, when the new freedoms in the Soviet Union led to increased talk of independence, Vazgen always stressed that the Armenian nation must be stengthened 'within the great and mighty family of Soviet nations'. He cautiously supported the return of the Armenian-inhabited Nagorny Karabakh enclave to Armenia, but called for the campaign to be restrained. He always claimed he had repeatedly applied to open churches in Karabakh for 20 years, before finally achieving success in 1988. It was at the personal request of Vazgen that a Karabakh people's deputy gave up his hunger strike after another Armenian had starved to death. Ironically it was the Karabakh dispute as well as the devastating 1988 earthquake that finally brought reconciliation between the two rival jurisdictions of the church.

Vazgen was a constant advocate of a peaceful solution to the bitter conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan over the Karabakh enclave. He met the spiritual leader of the Azeri Muslim community, Sheikh Allahshukur Pasha Zade, several times - most recently in the spring of this year - in an attempt to defuse Christian-Muslim tensions in the wake of the war.

Vazgen won many foreign and Soviet awards. This summer, he became the first person to be awarded the title of National Hero of Armenia.

From a questionable beginning, Vazgen's long reign brought the return of the Apostolic Church to the centre of Armenian life. The traditional regard for the Catholicos saved him from condemnation for his more pro-Soviet actions, but his co-operation with the Soviet state brought tangible benefits to the church. (It is interesting that he always avoided speaking Russian wherever possible, despite speaking it well, preferring to talk to non-Armenians in French.)

Above all, Vazgen believed it was only with the sympathy and support of the outside world that the Armenian nation and church could survive.

(Photograph omitted)