The Armenian Apostolic Church has in many ways been undertaking the mission of heeling the nation in most turbulent periods of our history. True to its mission, the Church has been both on the home front and the frontline during the 44-day war of 2020.
Many clergymen wore military uniforms on top of their religious robes, took weapon with their crosses and moved to the frontline. Those staying behind in the home front within a very short period of time came up with efforts and initiatives to support those most affected by the war.
One of those most notable initiatives, under the auspices and by the blessing of the Catholicos of All Armenians, has been “Artsakh Outreach” project. This project, implemented by the Social affairs department of the Mother See, has been carefully coordinated by a committee under the chairmanship of Archbishop Khajag Barsamian – the Pontifical Legate of the Western Europe and Representative of the Armenian Church to the Vatican. By the decree of His Holiness Karekin II, the committee includes clergymen and laypeople serving in the Mother See and all corners of the world.
“It has been very moving to see that every soldier had a cross and that on the walls they carved crosses or made those of stones, I saw makeshift chapels near the trenches”. Archbishop Khajag Barsamian
“It’s a natural part of the mission of the Armenian Apostolic Church to extend help, assistance and support to those in need. The Christ offered the best example of that with His life and commandments”, – tells Archbishop Khajag Barsamian thus starting to tell the background story of Artsakh Outreach project.
Khajag Srpazan reminds us of the old and new stories when the Church has come to the rescue of its people: “We know that Catholicos Nerses the Great had established charity endeavours in the early stages of Christianity in Armenia, such as monasteries, orphanages, hospitals. When the Spitak earthquake happened in 1988, Torkom Srpazan, who at the time was the Primate of Eastern Diocese, was among the very first to arrive in Armenia together with Kevork Hovnanian and Edgar Hovsepyan. It was at that time that the Eastern Diocese established the FAR, or the Fund for Armenian Relief, which continues its operations to this day. And that was not something very unique, all Armenian dioceses abroad launched such efforts”.
Fast forward to our days, Archbishop Barsamian mentions with a sense of responsibility and acknowledgment that in the course of the latest war in Artsakh in 2020, the Catholicos of All Armenians has launched the Artsakh Outreach project with diverse membership. “All the members are grateful to His Holiness for nominating us to serve in this effort. We are united in one goal – to deliver the best available assistance to those in need”, Srpazan says.
Archbishop Barsamian remembers with gratitude about all the individuals who have contributed thus far to this project, asking for forgiveness for the names that might be missing: “Primate of Western Diocese Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of Russian and Nor Nakhijevan Diocese Archbishop Yezras Nersisyan, Primate of Egyptian Diocese Bishop Ashot Mnatsakanyan, Primate of Australia and New Zealand Diocese Archbishop Haigazoun Najarian, as well as many-many laypersons who have important administrative functions within the Armenian Church globally, such as James Kaloustian from Boston, who has long been Eastern Diocese Council member, Oscar Tatosian – again a Eastern Diocese Council member and Armenia’s Honorary Consul in Chicago, Sinan Sinanian from California who also is Vice-President of the AGBU, Varoujan Altebarmakian who used to be Western Diocese Council member… Many-many other clergymen and laypersons from Armenia. All of them very devoted to this effort and are high-class professionals in their fields”.
The Artsakh Outreach project has primarily humanitarian goal of providing food and supplies to those most affected by the latest war, which leaves the question of other needs, such as healthcare and educational, hanging in the air. Khajag Srpazan says that those needs will be addressed by the Church in due course: “Naturally, we need to address that too. The FAR has over the years spent around $350mln, among other projects, also on educational and healthcare endeavours, and the Church will continue this work”.
“First steps have already been taken, and I have no doubt, with Vehapar’s blessing, we will expand those endeavours to approach healthcare issues, for example, with better coordination and organisation”, Khajag Srpazan says. According to him, the head of Social affairs department of Mother See, Fr Markos Mangasaryan, has already developed a project to better assist most affected families.
The chairman of the Artsakh Outreach project remembers holding a session of the Supreme Spiritual Council of the Armenian Church in Stepanakert, held in the aftermath of the Four Day War of April 2016. “Apart from the holding of the Council session, it was very moving and pleasant opportunity for me and everyone else to engage with people in Artsakh. We also went to the frontline, met with the soldiers serving there… I remember how the soldiers encircled Vehapar and all of us, asking their questions and engaging in conversation”, Srpazan says.
“It has been very moving to see that every soldier had a cross and that on the walls they carved crosses or made those of stones… I saw makeshift chapels near the trenches”, Archbishop Khajag says sharing his fond memories of that trip.
“I pray there is no more need for such projects in the near future”, says Fr Markos Mangasaryan
Fr Markos Mangasaryan is the director of Social Affairs department of the Mother See, as well as the coordinator of the Artsakh Outreach project. His department has been engaged in a great variety of humanitarian projects since the outbreak of the latest war in Artsakh.
“Before the inception of the Artsakh Outreach project, we had placed refugee families from Artsakh in four main shelters operating with the financial support of the Mother See – in Yeghegnadzor, Tsaghkadzor, Saghmosavan and Etchmiadzin. Overall, around 600 people from Artsakh were housed in these temporary shelters. On top of that, all our clergymen have done their fair share of settling thousands of others across Armenia in various parishes. These have never been quantified, because that has been done by their own goodwill and by the imperative of the moment”, says Fr Markos in the beginning of our conversation.
Fr Markos presents the work done within the framework of the Artsakh Outreach project in a few figures: “In the first phase of the project we delivered food and housekeeping items enough for one month to 205 families. In the second phase we had 386 families. More importantly, we aim at having development projects in the next phases – to provide jobs for these people, provide permanent housing and other needs. If this is not done, we will face mass migration. Preventing such emigration is the goal of this project”, Fr Markos says.
Fr Markos has been in many families who had to flee to Armenia from Artsakh. Everywhere he felt that Artsakh Armenians have invincible spirit. “One of the families living in our shelter is from Shushi. They have four minors in their family. Their mother, who lost her uncle in the war, lost her father there, still sees the future of their family in Artsakh, in Shushi. She has no moment of doubt. She tells everyone that they will be back to Shusni, no matter what”, Fr Markos tells me recalling many stories of the families affected by the recent war.
According to Fr Markos, since the early days of the war the people in or from Artsakh have kept in close touch with the clergy of the Armenian Apostolic Church. He says that the Armenian clergymen have treated all people from Artsakh equally, without regard to their religious views or any other characteristics. “We had to provide support, the best we can, to every brother and sister of ours from Artsakh”, Fr Markos says.
Many of the refugees had come to clergymen and asked to be baptized. Their connection with the church has been most direct: they participated in liturgies, spoke to priests, became member of the communities. According to Fr Markos, the clergymen have not treated this as an opportunity to preach and bring people closer to the Church, unlike many sectarians in this period have done, and in some cases also succeeded, unfortunately.
Fr Markos says all the social projects implemented by the Mother See are important and worth of support, but, meantime, adds: “I pray there is no more need for such projects in the near future”.
His words sound like a prayer indeed.
Prepared by Zaruhi Dilanyan