Visit of Catholicos of All Armenians to Damascus


By Hagop Vartivarian

From November 13-18, for the first time in history, the Catholicos of All Armenians went on a pastoral visit from Holy Echmiadzin to Damascus, the historic city of the erstwhile Umayyads, the first Muslim dynasty (661-750), and the capital of the present-day Syrian Arab Republic. As expected, the Damascus Armenian community, as a whole, welcomed its pontiff with open arms.
During the past half century, Damascus witnessed the saddest pages of our contemporary history, especially the days of our church split, beginning in 1956, and the fratricidal fighting resulting from that. Furthermore, ever since the day that the intervention of Vazken I, Catholicos of All Armenians, to put an end to the crisis within the Catholicosate of Cilicia and restore amity and legality failed due to the revolt against the authority of the Mother See and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s forcible establishment of its dominance over the Cilician Catholicosate, the Damascus Armenian community remained loyal to the supremacy of Holy Echmiadzin and, till this day, continues to extend its unmitigated love and respect to the Mother See.

In 1928, by the decision of the Administrative Council of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, with the approval of the then patriarch, Archbishop Yeghishe Tourian and by unanimous decision of the St. James Brotherhood’s General Assembly, the jurisdiction of the diocese of Damascus, as well as that of the dioceses of Beirut and Latakia, Syria, was freely turned over to Catholicos Sahag Khabayian, the elderly occupant of the throne of the See of Cilicia in exile, in order for the latter to have authority over a few dioceses. However, the Damascus Armenian community, led by its patriotic national and political organizations — ADL, SD Hunchak Party and AGBU — generally speaking, remained firm in its faith, and the general populace directed its love and faith solely to Holy Echmiadzin, while holding the See of Cilicia in respect.

The leaders of these organizations of ours didn’t have an easy time of it, especially in the wake of the Cold War, when a heated political atmosphere prevailed throughout the Middle East and from which the Armenians of Damascus could not, of course, remain exempt.

Unfortunately, instead of striking Turks, some Armenians struck other honorable, law-abiding fellow nationals who displayed solicitude toward the traditions of the Armenian Church.

Thus, in 1956, when the then-Prelate of the Diocese of Damascus, Bishop Shavarsh Kouyoumdjian was in the diocesan office next to the church, working on his book about the history of the Armenians of Damascus, a 17-year-old youth, at the bidding of those in charge of the ARF at that time and with a pistol given by them to him, fired twice upon the bishop. Fortunately, His Grace Shavarsh was rushed to the hospital where he was saved from certain death.  He had cultivated the best of relations at the highest level with the governmental authorities at that time. The country’s president was Shukri al-Quwatli, while the foreign minister was Sarraj.

Prior to the visit of His Holiness Vazken I, another despicable event had already occurred; namely, a group of Dashnaks rushed into the courtyard of St. Sarkis Church and then, once inside the church, attacked Mihran Der Stepanian, the chairman of the diocesan executive council and prominent ADL leader, leaving him so bloodied that it could have cost him his life.

They resorted to these vile measures in order to make it clear to the Armenians of Damascus that if they didn’t cooperate with the ARF, they would be subjected to the same acts that were committed against the Prelate and the chairman. Unfortunately, terror remained the sole means of enforcing the ARF’s exclusive control and authority. They had carried out such acts in Beirut, where patriotic youths whose allegiance was to Echmiadzin became the victims of fratricidal fighting; during that same period, law-abiding members of the Brotherhood of the See of Cilicia were thrown out of the monastery in Bikfaya in broad daylight; and well-known figures in the Armenian community and political party leaders like Prof. Parounag Tovmasian and Nubar Nazarian became targets of terrorist attacks.

The Cold War had already begun to have an impact on Armenian life, as well. In 1958, Syria united with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic, and Al-Wehda (unity) developed between the two countries. George Mardigian, the head of ANCHA, went to Syria where he tried to buy officers of the Syrian army with large donations. During those same days, a Dashnak from Damascus, Sarkis Bekiarian, was arrested as an agent working for the United States and the location of his body would permanently remain unknown. Furthermore, a large number of Dashnaks were arrested because large quantities of ammunition were found in the ARF club and churches in Aleppo, while others left Syria for good.

Thus, a severe struggle began in Damascus, during which many of our ADL members, like Krikor Asilian, were also subjected to interrogation as Communists. Here we are obliged to acknowledge, for the historical record, the great effort carried out by our Hunchak friends to maintain the diocese’s loyalty to the Mother See. Mrs. Gulizar Gartatsoghian, Khashmanian, Laleyian and other Hunchaks fought wholeheartedly for the sake of the supremacy of the Catholicosate of All Armenians. AGBU leaders, as well, like Levon Yacoubian and others, remained on the front lines of this struggle with the same patriotism; that patriotic spirit still exists within the Armenian community of Damascus.

Having appealed to the Syrian government to intervene, as necessary, our friends prevented those in control of Antelias from entering Damascus. During the initial days, even Catholicos Zareh I was sent back to Antelias from the Syrian border, because his entry into the country was prohibited. The same happened later on to Catholicos Khoren I. Until now, the entrance of the catholicoi of the See of Cilicia to St. Sarkis Church is forbidden. After the passing of Bishop Shavarsh, various patriotic clergymen were called into service within the diocese for a short time, such as Archbishop Serovpe Manoogian, the former Primate of Paris; however, Archbishop Knel Djeredjian, one of the most courageous clergymen of the Armenian Church, remained, until his last breath, the vanguard in the movement to keep the Damascus Armenian community on Echmiadzin’s side.

Until now, as well, St. Sarkis Church remains on the register of properties belonging to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The same was the case with Sourp Nishan Church ofBeirut but this property was turned over to the Catholicosate of Cilicia during Archbishop Yeghishe Derderian’s term as Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem.

And thus, for the first time, a Catholicos of All Armenians — our beloved universal Catholicos Karekin II — has gone to Damascus, having already completed his first decade as pontiff of the Mother See of Holy Echmiadzin. His pastoral visit to Damascus came at a time, when that city’s Armenian community was marking over fifty years of loyalty to the Mother See. It had honored the supremacy of Echmiadzin even dating back to the time when Bishop Dohmouni was the prelate. As it turned out, Catholicos Karekin’s visit has been a blessing, particularly at this time when the masses of Diasporan Armenians should warm up even more to Holy Echmiadzin and the motherland, the Republic of Armenia.