By Jennifer Ounjian Staff Writer
Introduction: Throughout my studies I have always been interested in the interaction and sharing between cultures. I hope that this two part series will help us as Armenians identify our religious allies and build even stronger “family” relations.
What makes a people? What makes a culture? It has been said that the term “ethnic” or “cultural” group can be used to define a group of people that share a common land, history, and language. But what is the bond that holds us, the Armenians, together in the Diaspora? If we no longer live in our homeland and only know parts of our history what makes us call ourselves Armenians after a few generations in America? Aside from language, the bond that links Armenians to the homeland is religion. It is the thread that has been woven into our memories and binds us to our ancestors. But what makes our religion special and different? Are we the only people in the world whose church belongs to the Lesser Eastern Orthodox family?
The answer is no. There are actually 4 other churches that belong to our family. They are the Syrian Church, the Indian Church of Malabar, the Egyptian Coptic Church, and the Ethiopian Church. Christianity spread first from Palestine through Northern Africa through Ethiopia, in Syria, Iran, as far as India, and also in Anatolia, Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome. But what made us separate from the others?
Two early Coptic contributions lead us to that answer. The first was the Catechetical School of Alexandria before 200A.D. It was here that the Bible and Christianity were studied by a wide variety of theologians and philosophers of the time including St. Basil and Cyril the Great. This led to the Ecumencial Movement, a series of four meetings or Councils of the hierarchy of all Christian Churches to discuss Early Christian beliefs and traditions and decide upon which rules and laws should be followed
It was the Fourth Council, the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. which marks the separation of East and West. At this meeting the Western Churches accused the Coptic Church and its sister churches of following the Bishop Eutyches, who believed in monophysitism, or the idea that the Lord Jesus Christ has only one nature, the divine. However, it was not true that they followed Eutyches. The Encyclopedia Coptica states that the Council wanted to exile the Churches because of their belief in separation of Church and state. It has also been theorized that the Eastern Churches resented the growing political power of the Western Churches.
Despite the reason, it is here that the Eastern Churches adopt the definition of St. Cyril of Alexandria, which was stated at the 431 A.D. council, “the one nature united in the Incarnate Word of God.” This is to say that there were two natures before incarnation but only one after the union, the human nature (of Lord Jesus Christ) was not dissolved in the Divine but rather the Divine made the human nature immediately it’s own. This is what originally bound us together as a family.
However, questions still remain. It is maintained by most religious scholars that Christianity was brought to the Armenians by the apostles St. Thaddeus and St. Bartholomew in the 1st century; later the official conversion was made by St. Gregory the Illuminator in 301 A.D. during the reign of King Tiridates. The Coptic Church of Egypt traces its conversion back to St. Mark in the first century and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to the time of the Apostles and officially during the reign of King Ezana (320-356 AD.). But what was the relationship between the Armenian Church and its sister churches in the 1st century and after the 451 A.D. Council? Dr. Papazian, a professor of History at the University of Michigan, writes that Armenian merchants frequented Antioch, Edessa and Nisibis (Northern Mesopotamia) some of the earliest Christian sites. Aziz Atiya, a world renowned scholar of Mediaeval and Near East studies and UNESCO committee member, writes that the Egyptian Coptic missionaries moved freely through Palestine, Syria, Cappadocia, Caesara, Arabia, and India.
What relationships, if any, were held between the Armenians and the Copts? Did Egyptian Copts or Ethiopians visit Armenia? Did Armenian merchants or missionaries travel into Africa?
Unfortunately, after 451 A.D. Egyptian Copts were under heavy religious persecution from the ruling Byzantine Empire until 641 A.D. when they fell to Arab conquerors and the promise of religious freedom. Armenia, which had won religious freedom from the Persians in 484 A.D., also fell to Arab conquests in the 7th century. Dr. Atiya writes that during Arab rule Ethiopia had no contact with anyone except Coptic Egyptians from about 650 A.D. until 1270 A.D.
In 1965 then Bishop Karekin Sarkissian writes that the Muslim conquests “had such repercussions on the situation of these churches that their numbers and influence were very much reduced and weakened….all such tribulations converted these churches into inward looking, self contented communities.”
Did this massive Muslim domination keep the Eastern Orthodox Churches separate and individual? What is the relationship between these Eastern Orthodox Churches in the 20th century? Of what importance was the Conference of the Heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches in 1965? What are the relationships of the Eastern Orthodox family in Fresno? In Part II I will attempt to answer these questions and explore some connections between these peoples, these cultures that share one of the strongest bonds that characterize a culture, religion.
For more information on this subject: Atiya, Aziz. A History of Eastern Christianity. University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana. 1968.
Bishop Karekin Sarkissian. The Witness of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. 1968. Papazian, Dennis. Armenians. Web site http://www.umd.umich.edu/dept/armenian/papazian/armenia.html