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Armenia: Nation Mourns Head of Apostolic Church

Yerevan, 9 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin, was buried yesterday in the presence of thousands of believers, Armenia's political leadership and foreign dignitaries.

Garegin died on June 29 at the age of 66 after a year-long struggle with cancer. Born in Syria and educated at Oxford, Garegin was elected Catholicos in 1995. He was buried in the courtyard of the main Armenian cathedral in the city of Echmiadzin amidst the tombs of other church leaders. Garegin will lie next to his predecessor Vazgen I, who reigned for more than 40 years.

An Armenian archbishop was named last week to temporarily lead one of the world's oldest Christian denominations until the election of a new Catholicos -- the 132nd -- expected in December.

Garegin's death led to the declaration of three days of national mourning in Armenia, which ended yesterday. Television and radio channels canceled all entertainment programs and flags on top of government buildings were flying at half-staff with black ribbons attached to them.

Yesterday's funeral followed a three-hour church service. Religious and political leaders paid tribute to Garegin for helping to revive the religious life following the collapse of Communism and Armenia's subsequent independence.

President Robert Kocharian said Garegin's tenure was short but "fruitful." He said Garegin was "one of the few lucky [chief clerics]" who led their flock in an independent Armenia.

The head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Catholicos Ilia II, who was also present at yesterday's ceremony, said he came to "share the great sorrow of the Armenian people."

Garegin's health started to rapidly deteriorate one month ago, which resulted in the indefinite postponement of Pope John Paul's visit to Armenia scheduled for early July. Vatican officials have said the Pope still wants to make the trip. Such a visit could coincide with upcoming celebrations to mark the 1,700th anniversary of Christianity's adoption by Armenia.

An ancient Armenian kingdom was the first in the world to make Christianity a state religion in the year 301. Clerics in Echmiadzin have said that a first-ever papal visit to Armenia would serve as a tribute to its contribution to the Christian faith and would expose Armenia's Christian identity to the outside world.

Catholicos Garegin was a driving force behind a rapprochement between the Catholic and Armenian churches, which began in December 1996 with the signing in the Vatican of a joint statement that put an end to old theological controversies. He and President Kocharian personally extended an invitation to the Pope last March to visit Armenia.

The Armenian Apostolic Church split from the World Church in the fifth century and has since been fully independent. The split was long before the 11th century's Great Schism that gave birth to Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy.

The role of the Armenian Church has gone well beyond religious matters in the last 17 centuries. After the fall of the last Armenian kingdom in the 14th century, it remained as the sole national institution. Its function as the nation's representative continued through the end of the 19th century, until the emergence of the first political groups.

The church is also identified as having played a significant part in medieval Armenian culture. The Armenian script, for instance, was created in the fifth century by clergyman Mesrop Mashtots.