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ECUMENICAL SERVICE CELEBRATES ARMENIANS’ 1700 YEARS OF FAITH

Photo: Leaders of May 30, 2001, Ecumenical Prayer Service
Celebrating 1700 Years of Armenian Christianity
Credit: Marty LaVor All Rights Reserved

Leaders, Ecumenical Service Celebrating Armenian Church's 1700 YearsMay 30, 2001, WASHINGTON, D.C. – Some 600 leaders and faithful from Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions joined together here May 30 in an ecumenical prayer service celebrating the Armenian Church’s 1,700 years of faithfulness.

"For us Christianity is not the garment but the color of our skin, which cannot be altered," said His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, honored guest at the service.

He expressed his joy at "seeing here members of various Christian churches gathered as one family." Affirming that "the spirit of ecumenism always has been part of the Armenian Church," he quoted St. Nerses who in the 12th century urged "unity in essentials, freedom in controversial issues and love in everything."

Armenia became the world’s first Christian nation in 301 A.D., preceding the Emperor Constantine’s "Edict of Milan" by more than a dozen years. The milestone inspired two of America’s leading Christian organizations – the National Council of Churches (NCC) and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops – to join with the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America to co-sponsor the service.

The Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America is one of the NCC’s 36 member communions, and its leader, His Eminence Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, is active in NCC governance structures. The NCC rescheduled the spring meeting of its 50-member Executive Board expressly to facilitate participation in the May 30 service.

The persistence of faith through trials and persecutions and the quest for a fuller unity among Christians were among themes of the service, which was held in the Catholic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

His Holiness Karekin II, of Etchmiadzin, Armenia, was flanked by two Roman Catholic Cardinals – His Eminence Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, and His Eminence Cardinal William H. Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore – the Rev. Dr. Robert W. Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, and several dozen other clergy who robed and participated in the processional.

The Armenian Church was born out of the suffering of St. Gregory the Illuminator, a devout Christian missionary who endured torture and 13 years of incarceration before he was released, ultimately effecting the healing – and winning the conversion -- of Armenia’s King Tiridates and all of Armenia.

The Church persisted through many trials, including persecutions from 1915-1922 -- during which more than two million Armenians were deported and more than 1.5 million were massacred by the Ottoman Turks in the first genocide of the 20th century -- and during 70 years under the Soviet regime.

Cardinal Keeler, acknowledging that "the Armenian Church has paid dearly for its fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus Christ," welcomed His Holiness Karekin II as a "living witness of the living Christian vitality of the church in Armenia."

Cardinal McCarrick touched on the unity theme, commenting that the ecumenical prayer service "offers a vision for what the Lord hopes for all of us as believers from many parts of the church, all one family of the Lord come together to celebrate."

Preaching at the service was the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr., Senior Minister of the interdenominational Riverside Church in New York City. Surveying the diversity of "attire, accents and appearance" of those assembled, he commented, "Just to be here takes a little bit of courage. There’s elation, and also uncertainty. What will the Holy Spirit ask of us now that we are together?"

Churches have yet to work out all their differences, he acknowledged, urging confidence that "the Holy Spirit will hear our ‘no’ yet bring us step by step …. God’s Spirit is here, calling us to move to ever-increasing unity."

The Knar-Asi Choral Group offered several selections, as did the D.C. Boys Choir. Those assembled joined in litanies, scripture readings and prayers and in the singing together of "Amazing Grace." The ecumenical prayer service was preceded by a lecture on the history of the Armenian Church.

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