The Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia
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.
this period the Catholicosal Seat - 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 was 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.
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. Even after the establishment
of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks, more
than fifteen dioceses were under Cilician rule including Sis, Adana, Hadjin,
Payas, Peria, Marash, Zeytoun, Fernooz, Aintab, Antioch, Melitene, Yozgat,
For five centuries the two catholicates,
for the most part, worked harmoniously with a spirit of cooperation. Any
disputes between the two were solved through consultation and compromise.
Both catholicates prospered and served
their people. The eighteenth century was a time of advancement for Armenian
national and ecclesiastical life. The nineteenth century was marked with
an increase in participation of the laity in church affairs, although lay
members of the church have always had a strong role. At this time historic
Armenia was divided between Russia and Turkey. In Russian Armenia a church
constitution called Polojenye was adopted governing the church. In Turkish
Armenia a National Constitution was developed by the Armenians and approved
by the Ottomans in 1863. This constitution covered not only church administration
but the administration of the Armenian millet. This basic constitution
is in use today governing the Cilician See and the Armenian communities
in Lebanon, and other countries in the Middle East.
Coinciding with this cultural and
national awakening of the Armenian population in Turkey was the steady
weakening of the Ottoman Empire. At various times during the nineteenth
century, the Ottoman government attacked the unarmed Armenians in an attempt
to stifle this national awakening.
the outbreak of World War I, Turkey unleashed a program of systematic extermination
of the entire Armenian population. In 1915 there was scarecely no Armenian
in Turkey who had not been affected. Men and young boys were forced into
work camps and eventually killed. Women, children, and elderly men were
sent on death marches. In all, more than a million and a half Armenians
The Armenian population in Cilicia
had been largely evaculated after France abandoned the region. The majority
found refuge in countries in the Middle East, primarily Syria and Lebanon
which were under a French mandate.
The Cilician Catholicos, Sahag II
(Khabayan), followed the exodus. From 1921 to 1929 he had no permanent
residence. He travelled throughout the Middle East, gathering orphans,
visiting the sick, consoling the survivors.
In 1922 the American Near East Relief
(later known as the Near East Foundation) established an orphanage for
Armenians on the shores of Lebanon along the Mediterranean in a little
suburban town called Antelias. There, thousands of Armenian orphans were
cared for by the Near East Relief until they could be safely resettled
On February 28, 1928, Catholicos
Sahag issued a letter of appeal asking the people for guidance about the
future of the Cilician See. Response from both lay and religious leaders
was overwhelmingly in support of the See. One year later, Catholicos Sahag
expressed the desire to establish the Great House of Cilicia in Antelias
at the site of the orphanage. The Near East Foundation was receptive to
the pontiff's request and granted the Antelias site to the Catholicate
free of charge for a period of five years. During these five years the
Foundation also provided considerable financial assistance. And so, on
March 4, 1929, the Great House of Cilicia was established in Antelias,
Lebanon, where it continues today.
The buildings which had been used
for the orphans were modified and repaired for use as a church, administrative
offices, residences for monks, a seminary, and printing plant. Since January,
1932, the Catholicate has published its official publication, Hask. After
consultation with lay and religious members, a Coadjutor, Papken Guleserian
was appointed. He had previously been a teacher in the Seminary in Jerusalem.
He was consecrated under French authority in Aleppo on May 29, 1930.
Sahag also invited Rev. Shahe Kasparian from the United States to act as
Dean of the Seminary, which was patterned after the famous Seminary of
Armash in Turkey where Patriarch Malachia Ormanian and Patriarch Yeghishe
Tourian served as deans. On June 16, 1935, the Cilician Seminary in Antelias
proudly graduated its first class of sixteen young scholars. Many years
later one of the sixteen, Zareh Payaslian, became Catholicos Zareh I.
With the end of the five-year period
granted to the Catholicate, the Near East Foundation agreed to sell the
Antelias site to the Catholicate. The site was purchased with generous
contributions from several benefactors.
Unfortunately, both Catholicos-Coadjutor
Papken I and Rev. Shahe Kasparian, the outstanding dean of the Seminary,
died at a young age, leaving the elderly Catholicos Sahag to continue.
The Archbishop of Cyprus, Bedros Sarajian, was appointed vicar-general
and succeeded Catholicos Sahag when he died in 1939 at age 90.
Catholicos Bedros I died in 1940
serving only six months. During his reign as vicar-general and the short
period as Catholicos, the Cathedral, the memorial chapel, and the seminary
building were built.
Subsequently, Karekin Hovsepiantz,
the Prelate in the United States, was elected Catholicos and became Karekin
I of Cilicia. However, because the world was now in the midst of another
great war, he could not travel to Lebanon until 1945.
reign was marked with a new period of spiritual and intellectual awakening
with emphasis on cultural activities. He encouraged the escalation of standards
at the Seminary and appointed Bishop Terenig Poladian to serve as its dean.
He encouraged the publication of much needed texts and the monthly review,
Hask, was enriched and enlarged. Qualified professors from around the world
were invited to join the faculty at the Seminary. During this period the
Catholicate sent many new priests to various parts of the world to serve
Karekin I died in June, 1952, and
immediately thereafter Archbishop Khad Achabahian was elected locum tenens,
whose main function according to the bylaws, was to prepare for the election
of a new catholicos within six months.
From 1952 to 1956, the Electoral
Assembly was called and postponed three times. In October, 1955, Archbishop
Achabahian resigned and Bishop Khoren Paroyan was elected locum tenens
by the General Assembly. At the same session, the date of the election
was set for February, 1956.
The Electoral Assembly convened February
14, 1956. Prior to the official opening, the Catholicos of Etchmiadzin,
His Holiness Vasgen I, requested a postponement of the elections, in order
to give him an opportunity to mediate an agreement between the majority
of the delegates and a minority group which opposed the election. The Assembly
convened and decided to postpone the election for one week as His Holiness
had requested. One week later, on February 20, the Electoral Assembly met
without a reconciliation between the majority and minority opinions. His
Holiness Vasgen I left Antelias without participating in the election.
same morning Bishop Zareh Payaslian was elected Catholicos by an overwhelming
majority of the delegates. The young Catholicos assumed the high office
dedicating himself to the work of the church and nation, but was saddened
by the controversy surrounding his election and said: "You have placed
upon my shoulders a most heavy duty, perhaps the heaviest in the world.
While others possess worldly and coercive powers, you have given me only
one kind of power over this Holy See of the Armenian Church-spiritual power-
and only one weapon-the Holy Bible. With the deep faith that we have inherited
from our ancestors, we should believe that beyond the transitory powers
and values, there exist the moral values and the Holy Bible which are more
basic, sublime, and external."
Unfortunately, the reign of Catholicos
Zareh, perhaps the gentlest and holiest of Catholicoses, was marred with
the electoral disagreements. Nevertheless, the Seminary flourished, the
church moved into its ecumenical period, and young seminarians were sent
to Europe and the United States to further their studies.
In a courageous and bold step, His
Holiness responded to a petition and assumed religious leadership of a
group of Armenian churches in the United States whose members were without
spiritual guidance since 1933. This act, together with a somewhat similar
situation concerning the dioceses in Iran and Greece, further aggravated
the already strained relationship between Cilicia and Etchmiadzin.
Catholicos Zareh died in February,
1963, at age 48, following a massive heart attack. Archbishop Khoren Paroyan
was elected in May 1963 to succeed him. The pontificate of Khoren I will
be remembered for the extensive physical improvements, not only within
the Catholicate, but the construction of schools and apartment buildings
outside of Antelias. As Catholicos he personally supervised the acquisition
of land in Antelias, Beirut, Bikfaya, and Junieh.
personally supervised projects such as the establishment of the George
Mardigian School, the building of a mausoleum (dedicated to Catholicos
Zareh), the renovation of existing buildings, construction of the Veharan
(residence and administrative offices), new printing facilities, summer
residence in Bikfaya, a museum, and a library.
Catholicos Khoren continued and expanded
the See's involvement in the ecumenical movement. His efforts in that direction
established the Great House of Cilicia firmly within the international
In 1963, His Holiness Khoren I and
His Holiness Vasgen I met in Jerusalem with the hope of beginning a process
of reconciliation. At that meeting Catholicos Khoren told Catholicos Vasgen,
"Rest assured, Your Holiness, that the Holy See of Cilicia is at your side
and will stand as a buttress for the existing and everlasting security
of Etchmiadzin. Etchmiadzin will be strengthened when we strengthen the
heirarchical Sees and the dioceses of the diaspora, and better organize
the Armenian church there. Let us strengthen the Catholicate of Cilicia
and the Patriarchate of Jerusalem so that Etchmiadzin, too, will always
remain strong. We conclude our words with this declaration: Let us love
Etchmidzin, but let us not hate Cilicia. Let us love Cilicia, but let us
not hate Etchmiadzin."
In 1977, having suffered several
heart attacks, and realizing that the current conditions in Lebanon required
the services of a younger person, His Holiness called for the election
of a Catholicos-Coadjutor. On May 22, 1977, Archbishop Karekin Sarkissian,
the Prelate of the Eastern United States and Canada, was elected and consecrated
one week later. He served as Coadjutor until the death of Khoren I in 1983,
at which time he became Catholicos.
Karekin II served the Cilician See
until 1995 when on April 9 he was consecrated as the Supreme Patriarch
and Catholicos of All Armenians in Holy Etchmiadzin, becoming Karekin I.
than three months later, Archbishop Aram Keshishian, the Prelate of Lebanon,
was elected and consecrated as the 45th Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia.
His Holiness Karekin I officiated during the consecration ceremony with
the participation of His Beatitude Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, Patriarch
of Jerusalem, and His Beatitude Archbishop Karekin Kazanjian, Patriarch
Throughout his years of service,
Aram I has been committed to the ecumenical movement and he currently
is the Moderator of the Central and Executive Committees of the World Council
of Churches-the highest elected office of the WCC. His commitment to the
Armenian church and nation is steadfast and he has often spoken and written
about the growth and renewel of the Armenian church:
...By survival I do not
mean a mere continuity, a barren existence, an inward-looking estate, but
a dynamic and creative existence for an effective witness. We are not concerned
with our physical survival as such. Nor are we anxious only for the sheer
perpetuation of the institutions that we have inherited. We are deeply
concerned with the very survival of Christian faith that was transmitted
to us as a sacred heritage, as the raison d'etre of our existence.
The secret of survival lies in
renewal. I know, we are still suspicious of and reluctant to face changes.
Very often we hesitate to introduce even minor modifications into our traditions
and institutions. No doubt, the traditions and structures that we still
preserve are of great importance to us. But we can no longer afford the
blind traditionalism which prevailed at certain times in our respective
histories as an absolute necessity for the survival of our churches. We
cannot remain imprisoned in a petrified institutionalism that hampers the
efficacy of Christian witness.