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The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin is the pre-eminent center of authority in the worldwide Armenian Apostolic Church. Located near the capital of Yerevan in the Republic of Armenia, it is composed of:
The cathedral dates back to the 4th century, and is reckoned the oldest Christian cathedral in world. Although the current sanctuary was erected in the 1600s, remnants of the 4th-century altar have been unearthed beneath the present structure.
In its capacity as the residence of the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians (the pontiff of the Armenian Church), Holy Etchmiadzin is known as the “Catholicate of All Armenians.” It became the seat of the Catholicate of the entire Armenian nation in the 4th century, following the conversion of King Tiridates III to Christianity by St. Gregory the Illuminator in AD 301.
According to the chronicler Agathangelos, soon after Armenia’s conver¬sion to Christianity, St. Gregory had a vision of the Son of God. Appearing as a heroic figure of light surrounded by a mighty angelic host, Christ struck the ground with a golden ham¬mer, indicating the place where the Mother Cathedral of the new Christian nation was to be established. The name Etchmiadzin–literally, “where the Only Begotten descended”–refers to this episode.
In the seventh century, the Muslim conquest brought yet another conqueror to the land of Armenia. In the mid-ninth century, Armenia recovered its independence briefly, lost it in the tenth century, and in the eleventh century the Seljuk Turks conquered Armenia, thus beginning a long tenure of subjugation, including some of the darkest days faced by the Armenian people.
Throughout this period the Holy See and the center of the Armenian Church and the Catholicos of All Armenians - the center of authority - frequently moved from place to place, due to the constant state of political disorder and unrest. The See was initially established in Etchmiadzin, Armenia, where it remained until 485 when it moved to Dvin by Catholicos Hovhannes Mandakuni.
It remained in Dvin for 442 years, after which it was moved to various locations for shorter periods. At various times the See was located in Vaspurakan, Aghtamar, Argina, Ani, Sebastia, Tavploor, Dzamtav, Shougher, Dzovk, and in 1147 in the castle of Romkla on the Euphrates River.
After the fall of the Armenian Kingdom of Ani, the Catholicate was transferred from Armenia Major to Cilicia (Lesser Armenia) where a large number of Armenians had settled and organized a dynamic center of ecclesiastical and national life under an independent principality which eventually became known as the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia.
In the year 1293, the Catholicate established its permanent seat in Sis, the capital of the Cilician Armenian Kingdom. During this period there were attempts to unite the Armenian Church with Rome. Prince Levon II especially favored this union, as did some of the clergy. However, the church was able to remain independent from Rome and maintain her orthodox tradition.
The Cilician Kingdom was destroyed by the Mameluks of Egypt in 1375, but the Catholicate continued to maintain its Seat at Sis and assumed the leadership of the nation. During the beginning of the fifteenth century there was a growing movement within lay and religious circles to return the Catholicate to its original location, Etchmiadzin, which it had left almost one thousand years earlier. Armenia Major was in a relatively peaceful time and it was considered an appropriate time to return to Etchmiadzin.
The Catholicos, Krikor Mousabegyantz, did not wish to abandon Sis at this time since there was a large Armenian population in Cilicia. However, he did not oppose elections in Etchmiadzin. So in 1441 an electoral assembly in Armenia Major elected Kirakos Virapetsi, Catholicos of the Holy See of Etchmiadzin.
Therefore, from 1441 until the present time there have existed two Catholicates, each without interruption, each with its own jurisdiction, each independent.
The division between the two sees intensified during the Soviet period and to some extent reflected the politics of the Cold War. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Dashnaktsutyun social democratic political party that had dominated the independent Armenia from 1918 to 1920 and was active in the diaspora, saw the Church and clergy, with its worldwide headquarters at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin in the Soviet Republic of Armenia, as a captive Communist puppet, and accused its clergy in the US as unduly influenced by Communists, particularly as the clergy were reluctant to participate in nationalist events and memorials that could be perceived as anti-Soviet.
On December 24, 1933, a group of assassins attacked Eastern Diocese Archbishop Levon Tourian as he walked down the aisle of Holy Cross Armenian Church in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City during the Divine Liturgy, and killed him with a butcher's knife. Nine ARF members were later arrested, tried and convicted. The incident divided the Armenian community, as ARF sympathizers established congregations independent of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, declaring loyalty instead to the See based in Antelias in Lebanon. The division was formalized in 1956 when the Antelias (Cilician) See accepted to provide spiritual and religious guidance to those communities that the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin refused.
The separation has become entrenched in the United States, with most large Armenian communities having two parish churches, one answering to each See, even though they are theologically indistinguishable. There have been numerous lay and clergy efforts at reunion, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union.
In 1995, Karekin II, Catholicos of Cilicia for the period 1983–1994, was elected Catholicos of All Armenians in the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin upon the death of Vazgen I, becoming Karekin I Catholicos of All Armenians, and serving as Supreme head of the church until 1999.
He was unable to unite the two Catholicosates, however, despite his having headed both.
The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem is located in the Old City of Jerusalem (Israel), in the Armenian Quarter comprises one-sixth of the old city and occupies the entire southwest corner of the town. The Armenian Patriarch and the Brotherhood of St. James, together with the Greek and Roman Catholic patriarchs, are the sole guardians of the Dominical Sites, the holiest shrines of Christendom.
The Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to early Christian times. From as early as the fourth century we have records about Armenian monks in the Holy Land. Over the ensuing centuries Armenian monks and pilgrims built several monasteries, with as many as seventy institutions mentioned by a seventh century Armenian writer. Armenian mosaics with Armenian inscriptions from the fifth and sixth centuries indicate a very early Armenian presence in the city.
Originally, the city of Jerusalem had one bishop and chronologically first in the line of bishops had been St. James, the Brother of the Lord. Armenian bishops from Greater Armenia visited the Holy Land and some may have lived there for extended periods of time. These pilgrim bishops, priests and laymen probably suffered persecution under Byzantine rule as a result of the schism in the church after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, since the bishops of Jerusalem adhered to the faith of the Byzantine Empire, whereas the Armenians remained true to the doctrines of the early church. When the Arabs seized Jerusalem in 637, the Armenians took the opportunity to set up their own bishop, a cleric named Abraham, to head he followers of the Armenian faith. It became traditional for the Armenian patriarchs to consider this Abraham as the first of the 91 succeeding bishops.
The Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople was traditionally established in 1461, when Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror ordered Armenians and Turks to settle inside the city of Constantinople, newly conquered by the Ottomans, and had Archbishop Hovageem (Joachim), the prelate of Bursa, move to his capital and preside as the spiritual head of the Armenians in his realm. The same tradition maintains that Sultan Mehmed issued an edict that specified all the rights he had granted to Archbishop Hovageem. The edict was unfortunately destroyed during one of the fires that occurred frequently in the Constantinople churches, thus depriving us of a very important document and a source of information.
Whatever the extent and nature of their jurisdiction and their exact title may have been, later Armenian patriarchs of Constantinople traced back their line to Hovageem, considering him the first patriarch. Yet historical evidence indicates that there were Armenian bishops in and around Constantinople presumably tending to the spiritual needs of Armenians in the region prior to the Ottoman occupation.