Saturday, September 26, 2015

Death of Catholicos of All Armenians Kevork VI (September 26, 1954)

Anti-religious policies during the first two decades of the Soviet Union would progressively bring the Armenian Church to the brink of destruction. Archbishop Kevork Chorekjian, first as locum tenens of the Catholicosate of All Armenians, and then as Catholicos, would lead the effort to revitalize the Church.

The future Catholicos was born in Nor Nakhichevan (today part of Rostov-on-the-Don) on December 2, 1868. After elementary studies at the parish school, in 1879 he entered the Kevorkian Seminary in Holy Etchmiadzin. He graduated in 1889 and was ordained a deacon in the same year. He pursued higher education at the University of Leipzig (Germany) in the fields of theology and philosophy, and also at the music conservatory (1889-1894).

Upon graduation, he returned to the homeland. He first taught music at the Kevorkian Seminary for one year (1894-1895) and then went back to his birthplace, Nor Nakhichevan, where for almost two decades he would work actively as a teacher and musician.

The breakthrough in his life occurred in 1913. At the age of 45, he was ordained archimandrite (vartabed) by Catholicos Kevork V and designated vicar of the diocese of Nor Nakhichevan. Two years later, as a member of the Committee of Fraternal Aid, he organized help for the refugees who had escaped from the Armenian Genocide, and became its chairman, as well as member of the Synod in 1916. He was ordained bishop in 1917 and designated sacristan of the Holy See.
Bishop Chorekjian was named primate of the diocese of Georgia in 1922 and held the post until 1927, when he returned to Holy Etchmiadzin and became a member of the Supreme Spiritual Council. Meanwhile, in 1925 he was elevated to the rank of archbishop.

The Soviet regime had practiced a comprehensive policy designated to reduce to a minimum the influence of the Church in general over society, and the policies carried in Soviet Armenia followed this general trend. As a result, by the 1930s most of the married and celibate priests in Armenia had renounced to the habits or had been subjected to various penalties, among other repressive measures. These policies came to a peak in 1938, when Catholicos of All Armenians Khoren I (1932-1938) died in unclear circumstances, which have been generally regarded as an assassination carried by orders of the Soviet secret police within the framework of the Stalinist purges. The first secretary of the Communist Party in Armenia, Grigor Arutinov, even wrote a letter to Joseph Stalin in 1940 asking permission to close the monastery of Holy Etchmiadzin and to turn it into a museum. Fortunately, the letter had no consequences.
Archbishop Kevork Chorekjian was one of the few high-ranking ecclesiastics who remained in Armenia. An encyclical issued by Khoren I before his death designated him as vicar of the Catholicosate. He managed the position until April 1941, when a National Representative Assembly was called to elect a Catholicos. However, the conditions were not favorable for the election (many dioceses could not send representatives due to World War II), and the gathering formally elected Archbishop Chorekjian as locum tenens of the Catholicosate.

For the next four years, the Soviet Union was involved in a life or death struggle against Nazi Germany, which also bore its impact over Armenia. The levels of repression and political pressure somehow diminished, and Archbishop Chorekjian took advantage to start working towards the reconstruction of the Armenian Church.
He organized a fundraiser in the Diaspora to finance the creation of the tank convoys “David of Sassoun” and “General Bagramian,” which would be added to the Soviet army. This public relations campaign would have its effect later, when he raised the issue of the Armenian territories usurped by Turkey in a meeting with Stalin held in April 1945.

The National Representative Assembly gathered in Etchmiadzin in June 1945 and elected 76-year-old Archbishop Kevork Chorekjian as Catholicos of All Armenians. Four months later, he addressed the government of the U.S.S.R, the U.S.A. and Great Britain, asking for the devolution of Armenian territories. From 1945-1947, claims for the return of Kars and Ardahan to Soviet Armenian would be one of the focuses of Soviet foreign policy.

Stalin also allowed some leniency to the Church, and Kevork VI used this to reopen the printing house, which in 1944 started the publication of the official monthly Etchmiadzin, which replaced the old monthly Ararat (closed in 1919). Some of the buildings of the monastery, which had been confiscated, were returned to the Holy See, as were the monasteries of Surp Hripsime, Surp Keghart, and Khor Virap. The seminary, closed since 1918, was reopened in November 1945 and its library was restored.

Despite the establishment of the Iron Curtain and the beginning of the Cold War, Kevork VI tried to enhance the links between Soviet Armenia and the Diaspora, which had been severed in the late 1930s. He had a significant role in the organization of the repatriation of 1946-1948.

The Catholicos also worked to replenish the ecclesiastical ranks, which had been decimated in the 1920s and 1930s. Fifteen new bishops were ordained during the nine years of his reign, and assigned to various dioceses which had remained without a religious head for years.
Catholicos Kevork VI passed away on September 26, 1954. He would be succeeded in 1955 by Catholicos Vazken I (1955-1994).