Vazgen I, 85; Armenian Church Leader
Vazgen I, patriarch of the Armenian church for nearly four decades, died Thursday at age 85.
“He was a powerful man and under the Soviet regime not only saved the church but continually improved it,” said Ludwig Khachaturyan, head of the state religious affairs council.
The Armenian church, founded in 301, calls itself the oldest in the Christian world. It has survived centuries of occupation of the tiny country, national catastrophe and official atheism under the Communists.
It remained an important unifying influence for a nation ruled for many centuries from Istanbul or Moscow and a people scattered by emigration across five continents.
Vazgen was chosen as its 130th leader, or Catholicos, in 1955 when the Stalinist era had barely ended. He presided through 30 years of Communism, when religious freedom was severely restricted, before Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s reforms brought down the system and eventually the Soviet Union.
Armenia’s independence in 1991 was overshadowed by the continuing conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, in which several thousand people have died since 1988. Vazgen spoke out constantly for peace in Karabakh, campaigning among Armenians at home and abroad.
Less than three weeks before Vazgen’s death, President Levon Ter-Petrossian made him the first recipient of the Caucasus nation’s new supreme honor, granting him the title National Hero of Armenia.
The cause of Vazgen’s death was not released, but he had been undergoing chemotherapy for cancer of the lymph glands.
The patriarch, whose original name was Levon-Karapet Palchyan, was born in Bucharest in 1908 and studied at the university there. He held church posts in Greece, Bulgaria and Romania before being chosen as Catholicos by a national church council in 1955.
He traveled widely, including visits to Los Angeles. A Communion service he conducted in the Hollywood Bowl in 1987 attracted 9,000 followers.