STEPANAKERT (RFE/RL–Armenpress)–The Artsakh Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church on Monday marked the tenth anniversary of resuming activities in Karabakh after more than half-a-century halt.
In late September 1989–18 months after the start of a mass movement for Karabakh’s unification with Armenia–bells again rang in Gandzasar–one of the most famous Armenian medieval monasteries. Like all other churches in Karabakh–Gandzasar was shut down in early 1930s at the height of Soviet crusade against religion. Karabakh leaders claim that discriminatory policies of the Soviet Azeri authorities also contributed to the virtual ban on practicing Christianity there.
Gandzasar’s transformation into an acting church signaled the re-establishment of the Armenian Church’s presence in Karabakh. The Christian rebirth gave a fresh impetus to the Karabakh Armenia’s’ drive for independence from Azerbaijan and their sense of cultural and political attachment to Armenia proper. Local clerics led by Archbishop Parkev Martirosian stood firmly behind the Karabakh Armenian forces during their successful war against Azerbaijan in 1993-94.
This may be one of the reasons why the Artsakh Diocese meets its anniversary in a privileged status ensured by the government of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.
The Karabakh legislature elevates the status of the Church above that of any other religious group. With courses on religion mandatory in Karabakh schools–local officials use every occasion to underline their commitment to supporting the oldest Armenian national institution.
Quite a few churches in Karabakh have been repaired and built since the end of the war in 1994. Little suggests that the magnificent Ghazanchetsots church in Shoushi (which is bigger in size than the main Armenian cathedral in Etchmiadzin) was an Azeri army warehouse until the town’s capture in 1992.
The privileged status also means serious restrictions on the activities of other confessions–mostly various Christian sects. In fact–none of those sects has succeeded in finding a modus vivendi with the government in Stepanakert. In 1995–a group of outsider Jehovah’s Witnesses were briefly held under arrest for "subversive activities in the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army" and "propaganda of desertion."
The authorities cite the constant threat of renewed fighting with Azerbaijan as the rationale for keeping martial law in force. This automatically puts groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses at odds with Karabakh law. Suspicion of them runs so high that many local politicians allege a conspiracy against the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic plotted by some "forces from abroad" acting under the guise of the freedom of religion.
On this occasion several medals were awarded to key figures reported Armenpress. Among those to receive the honor were benefactor Iskhan Chalayan–who received the gold medal in the name of the founder of the Gandzasar monastery and the silver medal in the name of St. Gregory–the founder of the Amaras monastery.
During the ceremony at the Kantsasar monastery–September 26–Archbishop Barkev Mardirossian–also awarded gold medals of honor to several other benefactors–Vahakn Hovnanian–Levon Hairabedian–Vazken Setrakian–Andrea Rupianian–and Aleksan Hagopian.
Six prominent Armenia’s also were awarded the silver medal–named after St. Gregory–out of which was Shahen Meghrian–who was awarded the medal posthumously.