Monday, February 13, 2017

Birth of Catholicos Nerses V (February 13, 1770)

Catholicos Nerses V Ashtaraketsi was one of the most relevant names of the Armenian Church in the nineteenth century. The future Catholicos was born Toros Shahazizian on February 13, 1770. He graduated from the Seminary of Echmiadzin and was consecrated celibate priest. He soon reached an influential position among the clergy.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Southern Caucasus was under the domination of Persia. Russia was pressing towards the south with the aim of occupying the region. Bishop Nerses had an active participation in the Russo-Persian war of 1804-1813 and the Russo-Turkish war of 1806-1812. This contributed to the strengthening of the political relations of the Holy See and the Russian government.
In 1814, Nerses, elevated to the rank of archbishop, was designated primate of the diocese of Georgia and moved to Tiflis, which was already under Russian rule. He took measures towards the renewal of the diocese and the conversion of Tiflis into an Armenian intellectual center. In 1824 he opened the first Armenian lyceum of the Southern Caucasus, which was called Nersisian after him and became an education center for the next hundred years. He also founded a print shop in the school and set the grounds for editorial work.
Archbishop Nerses Ashtaraketsi established close relations in Tiflis, the capital of the viceroyalty of the Caucasus, with Russian authorities and leaders. In 1816 he was decorated with the order of St. Anna in first grade. The Armenian community of Georgia, thanks to his tireless efforts, became an influential driving force in Armenian political and cultural life.
The prelate organized groups of Armenian volunteers that participated in the Russo-Persian war of 1826-1828 along the Russian army. He personally participated in the liberation of Yerevan, Etchmiadzin, and Sardarabad. After the occupation of Yerevan in 1827, he was designated member of the provisional administration of the region. He also had an important role in the organization of Armenian immigration from Persia into Eastern Armenia. In January 1828 Nerses Ashtaraketsi was decorated again, this time with the order of Alexander Nevski.
Statue of Nerses V in Ashtarak
His push for Armenian autonomy under Russian protection, however, was not well received by the imperial government. General Ivan Paskevich, commander of the Russian army in the Caucasus, persecuted autonomist leaders. The prelate was charged with a series of fake accusations, such as persecuting the Muslim population, enriching Holy Etchmiadzin on account of the royal treasury, and organizing an Armenian army. He was dismissed from his position in the administration and sent away from the Southern Caucasus in May 1828 with a designation as primate of the diocese of Nor Nakhichevan and Besarabia. Nerses Ashtaraketsi’s exile of sorts ended in 1843, when he succeeded Hovhannes VIII as Nerses V, Catholicos of All Armenians. He returned to Etchmiadzin and, despite his advanced age, he managed to be an active player in the public field, as well as in education and economy of the Holy See. The illusions of Armenian autonomy had left place to his support for a conservative current that fought to maintain the national spirit and traditional order of the Armenian Church. He pursued a prudent policy in his relations with the Russian state, but also with the Ottoman Empire and Persia. His encyclicals and writings continuously exhorted the Armenians to avoid steps that could displease the authorities. His efforts contributed to normalize the relations with the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Nevertheless, he fought to restore the rights of the Catholicos that had been diminished by the Polozhenye, the statute of the Armenian Church issued by the Russian government in 1836. Catholicos Nerses often took a defiant attitude and left aside the statute. He did not fill the vacant positions of the Synod created by the Polozhenye, limited the attributions of the primates, and zealously controlled the incomes belonging to the Holy See. He also prepared a new statute of the Church, which centralized the administration in the hands of the Catholicos.
Nerses V passed away in Tiflis at the age of 87 in 1857 on the day of his birth, February 13. A school and a street in his birthplace, Ashtarak, have been named after him, and his statue was placed in the central square of the town in 2009.