Church Role in Mideast Peace Seen : Discord: Leader of Armenian faith hopes to help build trust between warring factions. He hails new religious freedom in homeland.


An international leader of the Armenian Church, officially visiting Los Angeles for the first time, said his church could play an important peacemaking role in the Middle East as well as take advantage of new religious freedoms in Armenia and the Soviet republics.

Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, the Armenian patriarch of Jerusalem, said that while the 8-million-member church could not intervene between Israelis and Palestinians "in any political sense," church leaders could help "find a way to satisfy the ambitions of both. . . . At present, there is no trust between these two powers."

Manoogian, 72, spoke at a press conference Thursday at the Armenian Church of North America in Hollywood. He said he favors a Palestinian homeland as a prerequisite to bringing peace in that region.

Speaking of the breakup of Communist domination in the Soviet republics, the black-robed archbishop, draped with gold chains signifying his office and holding a gold-tipped staff, said the present government in Armenia "has given us full freedom to carry out our mission. . . . So the church will, with political leaders, help people make right choices and not isolate themselves."

"For 70 years," he added, "the church played no role politically." But now, under provisions of the new constitution, the church has taken a "rightful place in the life of the people . . . Christian Armenians know the role of the church in history so collaboration between church and state will be very easy."

By tradition, the Armenian Apostolic Church traces its origin to two of Jesus' 12 apostles. It became Armenia's first state church when Christianity was officially established there in AD 301. The church claims 4 million faithful in Armenia, 2 million in the republics of the Soviet Union and 2 million in the rest of the world. Of the 1 million in the United States, about 400,000 reside in the Western states and Mexico, including 225,000 in Southern California.

Manoogian is under the authority of Catholicos Vasken I, patriarch of all Armenians, based in the Mother See, or "Armenian Vatican," at Etchmiadzin, Armenia. Manoogian will be in Southern California until Tuesday to celebrate the centennial of the church's founding in America and to raise money for church work overseas.

Renovation of buildings, promotion of Christian education and seminary training for priests are top priorities, he said. No financial goal has been set for the campaign.

The shortage of priest candidates and ordained priests is acute, Manoogian said. Church suppression under the Soviet regime caused the shortage in the republics, he said, "while in the Western world it's secularism and the attraction of other professions." In the Armenian church, a priest may marry, but only before he is ordained. Married priests are not eligible to become bishops, however, and the ordination of women is not permitted.

The Armenian Church of America is a member of the National Council of Churches, a tie that is now giving the church pause. Along with leaders of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, the Armenian Church is opposed to the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the consecration of female bishops--policies that some NCC-member bodies endorse.

Archbishop Iakovos, the Greek Orthodox primate, announced in June that Greek Orthodox participation in the council had been suspended. A series of talks on the issues, to which leaders of 10 Orthodox denominations--including the Armenian Apostolic Church--have been invited, will be held this fall. Manoogian said continuing Armenian participation in the NCC would be "up to the primates to make."

Archbishop Vatche Hovsepian, primate of the Armenian Church's Western Diocese, said at the press conference that he planned to remain a member of the council but, at the same time, "defend the teachings of my church."

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