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Armenia: Country Embarks On Year-Long Christianity Celebration

The first nation ever to declare itself Christian has begun a year-long celebration of that event 1,700 years ago. It's a deeply spiritual occasion. Our correspondent, Emil Danielyan, says the organizers want to make it also an occasion for pulling in lots of dollars.

Yerevan, 8 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Armenia is celebrating the 1,700th anniversary of the Armenian nation's conversion to Christianity.

An ancient Armenian kingdom in 301 AD became the first world state to adopt Christianity as the state religion. And the Armenian Apostolic Church wants the year-long celebration that began on New Year's Eve to be an extraordinary occasion for enhancing the role of religion in public life.

But authorities are seeking also to cash in on the commemoration as a huge commercial undertaking, seizing on the occasion to attract investment in Armenia's struggling economy. The authorities also aim for worldwide publicity.

Official hopes for the festivities underlie government forecasts of an economic upswing next year that foresees output growing by an unprecedented 8 percent.

Institutions such as the World Bank have acknowledged the economic significance of the Christianity anniversary. Here's the bank's resident representative in Yerevan, Owaise Saadat, speaking recently to reporters:

"This is an opportunity for us to project Armenia's image, to tell the people who don't know about Armenia what a potential it has."

There are forecasts of a record influx of tourists -- official estimates of 150,000 to 200,000 -- with each visitor injecting at least a thousand dollars into the economy.

Local travel agencies are more cautious in their predictions but also expect a major rise in tourism. The biggest problem facing them, they say, is a lack of acceptable hotels.

Anahit Papazian is a senior executive at the Levon Travel agency.

"I'm not sure we are prepared to accommodate so many people. First of all, we don't have enough hotel beds. We are struggling to make reservations for our customers due in 2001."

Papazian says that ethnic Armenians, mostly diaspora Armenians from Europe and the United States, comprise the greatest market potential for visitors to Armenia.

"Unfortunately, the influx of tourists to Armenia has a strictly ethnic character. We haven't yet been able to arouse Westerners' interest. Very few of them come to Armenia."

Apres Zohrabian, a manager at the Sati Armenia company, which specializes in sightseeing tours for foreigners, says the demand for hotels is now three times the supply. He said prices at a handful of Yerevan hotels meeting international standards have shot up by 30 percent as a result.

The tourist industry hopes that a number of hotels under construction with completion dates set for next May will help. This promises, however, only a partial solution. The authorities plan to accommodate a large share of the expected visitors in private apartments available for rent.

Armenian President Robert Kocharian headed a state commission that developed a timetable of special events to include religious ceremonies, festivals, theatrical shows, and concerts. The celebrations are to reach their climax in September with the opening of a new huge cathedral in the capital, Yerevan. The organizers have invited Pope John Paul to the opening, and report that the Vatican has tentatively accepted.

The head of the Armenian Church, Catholicos Garegin, says he hopes that the 1,700th anniversary not only will expose Armenia's Christian identity to the outside world but also return religion to the day-to-day life of Armenians who lost touch with many Christian rites and traditions during 70 years of Soviet rule.

But that is not what primarily preoccupies the country's secular authorities. Khosrov Harutiunian, deputy chairman of the organizing commission, met at year's end with leading businessmen to discuss commercial participation.

The commission offers licenses for local manufacturers to adopt the official logo of the celebrations. A brewery in Yerevan has expressed interest in placing it on its labels. The organizers also envisage advertising space in official booklets and travel guides to be circulated abroad. An aide to the Armenian minister of industry and trade has urged export-oriented firms to seize on the opportunity to market their products.

The government has obtained $22 million from two Armenian- American charities to upgrade Armenian tourist infrastructure. The grants are being mainly spent on the repair of roads and bridges leading to medieval churches and monasteries.