By: Barlow Der Mugrdechian
The afternoon air was filled with excitement and anticipation on Wednesday, Oct. 27, 1999, as 452 delegates from more than 30 countries prepared to enter the doors of the sanctuary of Holy Etchmiadzin, to cast their ballots for the 132nd Catholicos of All Armenians.
One by one the delegates entered the Church as their names were called, each feeling the weight of responsibility as an elector who would decide the leader of the Armenian Church into the next millennium. Presiding over the election were Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Mesrob Mutafyan, Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, and Archbishop Nerses Bozabalyan, Locum Tenens (interim head of the Armenian Church).
Presiding over the election were Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Mesrob Mutafyan, Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, and Archbishop Nerses Bozabalyan, Locum Tenens (interim head of the Armenian Church). The delegates had gathered at Etchmiadzin earlier in the week, to participate in the National Ecclesiastical Assembly, which began on Tuesday, Oct. 26. The Assembly had been convened to elect a successor to the late His Holiness Karekin I, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, who had passed away on June 29, 1999. His Holiness’ reign of a little more than four years as Catholicos—he had been elected in April of 1995—was cut short by illness.
The National Ecclesiastical Assembly also had on its agenda a discussion of a draft constitution for the Armenian Church worldwide. As a delegate elected from the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, I was privileged to participate in only the 3rd National Ecclesiastical Assembly held in the past 44 years. Although I had been to Armenia on several previous occasions, this was the first time that I participated in the election of a Catholicos. I was joined by 22 other delegates from the Western Diocese, including four other delegates from the Central Valley.
The election of a Catholicos has historically been an important event in Armenian history, for the primary reason that during periods when the Armenians had lost their sovereignty, the Armenian Church had provided not only spiritual but political leadership as well (for example the role of the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople as head of the Armenian millet during the period of Ottoman Turkish rule over Western Armenia). But this election was even more significant, taking place on the threshold of two important milestone anniversaries: the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ celebrated in the year 2000 and the 1700th anniversary of the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion of Armenia in the year 2001. By this reasoning, a Catholicos had to be elected and consecrated to lead the Church and the people into the 21st century.
In addition, Armenia and the Diaspora need continued spiritual renewal, especially in Armenia, where 70 years of communist rule had severely impacted Christianity and the Church, and in the Diaspora, where administrative differences have substantially affected many communities, especially in the United States. His Holiness Karekin I had begun to implement some of the necessary changes but his relatively short tenure made it impossible to make substantial progress. 47 bishops were eligible candidates for the highest office in the Armenian Church, and in the months preceding the election, there was much discussion about who would be the best candidate. Although many names were suggested and there was substantial discussion in the press, especially in the Diaspora, only Archbishops Nersisian and Bozabalyan accepted final nomination.
As a delegate I was motivated by the duty to select a candidate whose leadership qualities would take the Armenian Church into the 21st century. What made this already formidable task even more difficult, was the fact that there was no formal campaign for office, and without a campaign, it was harder to formulate an opinion. Although a political style campaign would not have been desirable, it would have been preferable for the candidates themselves to present their own opinions and views on a variety of issues. Neither of the two final candidates publicly spoke to the delegates at the Assembly about what their goals would be when elected to this high office. I personally spoke to many delegates who had only a cursory knowledge of the two candidates. Biographies of the two candidates were not even available to the delegates prior to the election. The issue of informing the delegates about candidates prior to election should be remedied at future Assemblies.
There was no consensus candidate among the bishops themselves, who were publicly divided over which candidate to support. Several bishops had publicly accused the government of Armenia of meddling in the election by supporting one candidate over others (interestingly enough, this issue was not as hotly debated four years earlier during the previous election for Catholicos). Thus, the election took place in an unusual atmosphere, but always with the thought in mind that the choice was an important one for the Church.
The anticipation of the delegates as the voting began in Holy Etchmiadzin was palpable. As the vote count began, most delegates had paper and pens in hand as they followed the vote count. Some delegates had even brought cell phones into the Cathedral and were employing them as the vote was in process. As the count neared the majority vote, a rise in the level of anticipation could be felt. With the announcement of the 226th vote for Archbishop Nersisian, a flurry of applause rippled through the assembled delegates.
At the conclusion of the election, the Catholicos-elect addressed the delegates with emotion and sincerity in his words. He offered his prayers in acknowledging the difficult role that he would be undertaking, walking in the footsteps of St. Gregory himself. He recognized the two clergy who had had the most impact on him, the late Catholicos Vazken I and the late Catholicos Karekin I. He also spoke about his own family, about his parents, and about his own journey as a young man growing up in a faithful family. The Catholicos emphasized the need for a united Church, firmly planted in the hearts of the people. The Church has a great responsibility to the faithful both in Armenia and in the Diaspora. It was at his moment that the Catholicos, and all of the delegates, learned of the tragic events which had taken place only moments earlier in Yerevan (see story by Michael Krikorian, page 1). News of the assassinations shocked those present and marred the happy occasion of the election of a Catholicos.
But a new Catholicos of All Armenians had been elected and the process which had begun several months earlier had come to its completion. The consecration of the Catholicos was planned to take place on Sunday, Oct. 31 during the Divine Liturgy at Holy Etchmiadzin. Instead, because of the assassination of Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and Parliament Speaker Karen Demirchian, the consecration was postponed until Thursday, Nov. 4. Most of the delegates who had assembled unfortunately missed this important event because of prior travel arrangements. Thus I had the unique opportunity to be in Armenia for two significant events, the election of the Catholicos and the tragic events at the Parliament. These two events arguably were the two most important events in the life of the young Republic of Armenia, both in a religious sense and also in the political arena and will provide material for discussion for students at Fresno State for many years. I will never forget those few days in Armenia which will have a historical meaning that only time and future generations will have a chance to more fully evaluate and reflect upon.