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20th anniversary of Artsakh Diocese

The disciple of Apostle Thaddeus, Egishe, after being ordained in Jerusalem, brought Christianity to Aghvank. Light kindled with a new force thanks to the conversion of Armenians by St. Gregory the Illuminator. In the 4th century AD he settled in Amaras, thus establishing the Eastern Diocese the successor of which is Artsakh Diocese.

Under Echmiadzin’s patronage one of the hierarchical Sees of the Armenian Church – The Church of Aghvank was founded. Led by Bishop Grigoris, the grandson of St. Gregory the Illuminator, Amaras became the first headquarters. Adopting the Christianity Vachagan the Pious built 365 churches all over Artsakh. The road of the retrieval of God stretches all over and traces of it have preserved till our days.

The Catholicosate of Gandzasar – a Metropolitan See with 1311 churches represents the rich history of the Diocese of Artsakh unjustly suppressed during the Soviet period.  In 1930 the persecutions of the clergy and the faithful accompanied by active Azerbaijani intervention led to the final closing the Diocese. The consequences are easy to imagine.

While Armenians, a nation with rich culture, enriched their homeland with countless monuments, tyrannic turks under the guise of the party continuously destroyed them in order to secure the annexed land.

While Armenians built eternal monuments, communists took down the cross, shut the church door and forgot their prayers. Making use of the new regime, the cruel neighbours hid khachkars in the walls of their houses. Monasteries and churches with valuable historic inscriptions , khachkars and headstones were all destroyed. The communist atrocities and religious persecutions lasted almost half a century. But one day they had to be stopped. The light of destroyed sanctuaries had to be kindled in the hearts of future generations. An unprecedented national movement had to be started to combat the destructive forces. Years could not resist the genes. And so the light kindled and the movement commenced.

People united around their spiritual riches and the motherland revived. The Artsakh movement needed the Diocese. Our millennium-old spiritual treasures had to be reborn for the sake of justice. People demanded. The historic moment came. In 1989 by the pontifical encyclical of Vazgen I, Catholicos of All Armenians, whose efforts in Artsakh’s heroic struggle resulted even in a hunger-strike in Moscow, the Diocese of Artsakh was reopened. It was established in Mountainous and Northern Artsakh even though the latter had faced ethnical cleansing. In March Bishop Pargev Martirosyan, a zealous clergyman, was appointed spiritual leader of the newly opened diocese. After a lengthy pause on October 1, 1989 the first Sunday mass was served by Bishop Pargev Martirosyan at the cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Gandzasar. Words are inadequate to express its significance.

– Only a great nation is able to restore a cathedral in such a difficult time.

“This is a heroic nation”. We have heard foreigners utter these words a numerous times. Either through divine intervention or God’s grace the people of Artsakh know how to reach justice. At the rise of the liberation movement they faced the imposed war. They had to face the worst disaster and go through fires and flames. The first days of the rebirth of the Diocese coincided with difficult times. Therefore its activities had to be adjusted to the needs of the time. Parallel to living its spiritual rebirth the Diocese contributed to the liberation of Nagorno-Karabakh and establishment of statehood. Clergymen went to fight alongside soldiers.

And so the unbelievable happened with God’s blessing. The fortress town of Shoushi was liberated. The Armenians took the first steps to the church that had been turned into a military storehouse.

-The church must surely be restored so that Shoushi shines with its bygone glory.

Shoushi was proclaimed spiritual center. The Cathedral of Christ the Holy Saviour was restored and consecrated anew. The prelacy resided in Shoushi. Encouraging the soldiers, healing the wounded and comforting the sad we overcame the hardships of the war. We won. Today the Diocese that undertook the task of providing the field hospital with arms is supporting the army and the efforts aimed at building statehood. As the history has stated, it is ensuring the nation’s existence.

Having gone through fires and flames of the war the Diocese could see the light of salvation through the thick clouds. Spiritual Artsakh has existed with Christian faith, joint efforts and aspirations.

– If they don’t consider me a soldier, I’ll be very offended. Every clergyman of the Armenian church, as you know… the history states this… the ties between people and the church have always been close.

Thus, the unprecedented process of creation started. The church spread its presence village by village, region by region. Replenishement of the clergy, teaching of religion at schools, publishing works, religious propaganda, church building. These were the priorities of the Artsakh Diocese. The renaissance became more evident in the last decade when the churches were consecrated. The voice of the Gospel sounded in new churches. Bells began to ring. People started saying their prayers inside sacred walls. More, they started to sing sharakans – Armenian religious songs. 7 new churches and 3 chapels, 30 restored churches and monasteries, prelacy, manses and a palace of youth. Each of them is a fortress ensuring the safety of Artsakh’s spiritual life. The process of church building is going on since a number of sanctuaries are still to be restored.

– We should unite our forces to save hundreds of sanctuaries and our cultural gems. They belong not only to us but also to the whole Christian community. They belong to humanity.

We are proud of our treasures. The Diocese includes the most valuable samples of Armenian spiritual culture, Gandzasar – the encyclopaedia of Armenian church architecture. John the Baptist’s head, the blood of his father, Zaqaria, St. Gregory the Illuminator’s jaw, the relics of St. Pantalion, Minas and Grigor are buried here.

-Այս վանքը իր կառույցներով հայ ճարտ-ն մեկ համադրությունն է, սիմֆոնիան է, – The monastery with adjacent buildings is the combination of all Armenian architectural features. A symphony, if you like. During the Artsakh liberation movement it was the symbol of the people’s struggle and victory. Today I am happy to be here, I prayed in the church, saw the new constructions, restoration works. Rings will bell and herald the new life of Karabakh and our people all over the world.

One of Armenian sanctuaries – Amaras, once an episcopal See where St. Mashtots established one of the first Armenian schools, our marvelous Dadivank where Dadi, one of Thaddeus’ disciples perished. The khachkars of Dadivank seem to be woven from divine rays and reflect amazing shades and lights. Look at Horekavanq, Yerits Mankunq, St. Kataro – aren’t they perfect? The list can be continued and it will not be over soon. And those left out are also examples of perfections – unique and irreplaceable.

– We should live instilling moral values in us and the biggest source of such values is faith.

Wherever you dig, you find khachkars, colourful ruins, traces of gone civilization.

– When we cultivate the soil, we find ruins of churches. We take them out and clean them. It’s not possible to count them all.

The Armenian church is the anchor and pillar of our existence. This is understandably more vital for Diasporan Armenians who help and support the Diocese. Diaspora, the advocate of sovereignty and independence of the 2 Armenian states, came to share the burden of the war and the country’s reconstruction. It will be difficult to name all of them. But we should state that thanks to their investments numerous church building, reconstruction, spiritual, educational and charitable projects have been implemented.

– It is the church that helps us stay Armenian, isn’t it? It has kept us all around.

– The Diaspora should be more active and assist in this liberation movement.

– We have 280 villages. It will take us time to educate clergymen, restore and keep so many churches. But let’s hope one day this dream will come true.

National unity is certainly our biggest task. Since reopening the Artsakh Diocese has always been given special attention by Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin. The proofs are Armenian patriarchs’ visits to Artsakh. In 1998 His Holiness Karekin I, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians came to Artsakh. “Let us thrive for life, work and restoration with faith, hope and love. These are the three virtues – faith, hope and love. There is no greater power in human life.”

The groundbreaking ceremony of Our Lady of the St. Hovhan in Stepanakert was attended by His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Aremenians. With pontifical blessing Holy Matrimony ceremony was held during the Big Artsakh wedding.

– We pray God to unite you with love, protect you till the old age and bless you with eternal matrimony.

Mutual visits on the sidelines of State-Church cooperation aim at stating and preserving the country’s spiritual face.

– We are happy about the activities of the Artsakh Diocese. Churches are restored and reopened, the spiritual life is reviving and the people, true to the faith of their ancestors, keep praying beneath the sacred church pillars.

It was symbolic that St. Mary’s icon should be placed in Gandzasar.

The 20 years of the Diocese were a time of work and preaching. Under its auspices the orphanage “Zatik”, a nursing home, division of humanitarian aid, that provides help to those in need, the sick and the students started working. In order to associate with the spiritual heritage of the Armenian Chruch and Christian values, in 1994 with the blessing of Vazgen I, Catholicos of All Armenians and by the order of Archbishop Pargev, “Gandzasar” theological center was founded on the basis of the eponymous journal. The center carries out publishing works and spiritual propagation. With its efforts the spiritual, cultural and educational radio station “Vem” has been working for already 7 years. The center of Christian upbringing, the Brotherhood of Church Lovers occupy a significant place in the activities of the Diocese.

– There is no second land of this in the world. Land that bears so many features of the history of Armenia with its monasteries, churches, chapels, fortresses, khachkars and headstones. Traces of the Armenian history and lifestyle. And politicians must always consider this when they make a decision because there is God, a nation and there is truth. Committing a sin against truth will mean committing a sin against God.

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