YEREVAN -- Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian -- facing criticism from the country’s dominant Christian church over his handling of Armenia's recent war against Azerbaijan -- has stayed away from a Christmas service he was expected to attend in Yerevan on January 6.
Parliamentary speaker Ararat Mirzoyan and other key members of Pashinian’s political team were also conspicuously absent from the mass that was held at St. Gregory the Illuminator's Cathedral in Yerevan.
Prosecutor-General Artur Davtian was the only senior state official present at the service.
According to Pashinian's spokeswoman Mane Gevorgian, the Armenian prime minister didn't attend because he was self-isolating due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Pashinian announced in June that he and members of his family had tested positive for COVID-19. He claimed a week later that he had recovered from the disease.
It was not immediately clear on January 6 whether he had been reinfected. Gevorgian did not specify whether Pashinian has recently taken another coronavirus test.
Pashinian has been criticized by his opponents in Armenia for signing a November cease-fire agreement in the war over Azerbaijan's breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Under the cease-fire deal, Baku reasserted its control over parts of the breakaway region along with all seven surrounding districts of Azerbaijan that had been occupied by ethnic Armenian forces since the early 1990s.
Catholicos Garegin II, the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, has been among Pashinian's critics and is increasingly at loggerheads with the Armenian government.
The Armenian Apostolic Church observes Christmas on January 6. Pashinian marked the day by quoting a biblical excerpt on his Facebook page.
During the January 6 Christmas service attended by hundreds in Yerevan, Garegin spoke about the Nagorno-Karabakh war and its "disastrous consequences" for Armenians.
He lamented what he said were “destructive mistakes” made by Yerevan before the long-frozen conflict reignited in late September.
"Necessary vigilance was not shown in the face of the threats of an unstable peace and war," Garegin told worshippers at the Christmas mass. "The interests of the homeland and the people were subordinated to individual aspirations and goals."
Garegin also prayed for Armenians to "stand strong in the face of the lethal test of our nation."
A day before the Christmas mass, a group of Armenian opposition supporters declared they would try to block Pashinian from entering the Yerevan cathedral on January 6.
Virtually all major opposition groups blame Pashinian for Armenia’s defeat in the war. They want him to resign and hand over power to an interim government that would hold fresh parliamentary elections within a year. Pashinian has refused.
Garegin and other senior clergymen in Armenia and its worldwide diaspora have publicly backed the opposition demands.
Some priests from the Armenian Apostolic Church have also attended anti-government demonstrations in Yerevan calling for Pashinian's resignation.
One priest based in Armenia's southeastern town of Sisian publicly refused to shake Pashinian’s hand when the prime minister visited a local church there in December.
Garegin’s office declined to criticize the priest's behavior -- despite condemnation from Pashinian’s supporters.