In a period when the kingdom had fallen (428) and the country was divided between Persia and Byzantium, the Armenian Church rose as the main unifying force. Victim of various accusations, after the fall of the kingdom Catholicos Sahak Partev was retained in Persia, and Surmak, from the house of Aghbianos—rival to the house of St. Gregory of Illuminator—became Catholicos, supported by the Persian king Vram V, although he never enjoyed the support of the Armenian Church. After his death in 443, Hovsep I Hoghotsmetsi, a student of Mesrop Mashtots, was elected Catholicos and was recognized both by the Church and by new Persian king Yazkert II.
Catholicos Hovsep and governor of Armenia Vasak Siuni agreed to convene a national-ecclesiastical assembly in the town of Shahabivan, in the district of Dzaghkotn of the province of Ayrarat (Great Armenia), which was the headquarters of the Armenian royal army. The assembly was attended by 40 bishops and other ecclesiastics, as well as many laymen, including princes, members of the military, etcetera. It started on June 24, 444.
The assembly was convened, mainly, to confirm the rules established by the Apostles and the Council of Nicea, which many ecclesiastics had broken, and to reaffirm the internal order and moral norms of the Armenian Church, as well as to give its judgment upon various heresies and wrongdoings.
The assembly of Shahabivan was canonical, but its resolutions, unlike other cases, were the only ones that established punishment for various transgressions. For these reason, its resolutions took the character of a judicial code. Only one of the 20 rules had an advisory character. Otherwise, ten rules (six of them fully, and four partly) were devoted to ecclesiastics, and they established canonical and criminal punishments for canonical violations and transgressions. Nine rules in their totality and four of them partly were about princes and villagers, with different punishments. Interestingly, while villagers received corporal punishment (beating), the princes were only sentenced to advice, fine, and repentance.
However, some transgressions had the same punishment for both villagers and princes. The fines established for villagers were half or less than half of the fines for princes. The rules took into consideration the economic situation of both social classes.
According to the resolutions of the assembly, all fines would go to the churches and homes for the aged, and in certain cases a portion of the fines would be distributed among the poor. In the canons of the assembly, women and men were equal before the law: “Whether male or woman, the canon applies.”
The assembly passed severe resolutions against the heresy of the Messalians. This heresy, which had originated in the fourth century, denied that the Sacraments gave grace, including baptism, and declared that the only spiritual power was constant prayer that led to possession by the Holy Spirit. The adult members of heretical families were confined to leper colonies, while the children were delivered to the Church, which took their spiritual education in its hands.
The assembly of Shahabivan was very important in the consolidation of the grounds of the Armenian Church and the formation and development of a corpus of Armenian law. It might also be said that its momentum was still felt a few years later, when the attempt of Persia to impose Zoroastrianism met a fiery Armenian resistance symbolized by the battle of Avarair in 451.