YEREVAN/ETCHMIADZIN (RFE/RL–Armenpress)–Dozens of representatives of Christian churches from around the world–who have converged on Armenia to celebrate the 1700th anniversary of its conversion to Christianity–conducted a joint ecumenical service at the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Etchmiadzin on Saturday.
The high-ranking clerics–including Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey and Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Theochrist–paid tribute to Armenia’s contribution to the Christian faith at an ensued welcoming ceremony.
The representatives of virtually all Christian denominations making up the World Council of Churches were later joined by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church–Patriarch Alexi II–as they attended the blessing of chrism–a specially prepared liquid used in Christian ceremonies.
Alexi went straight into Etchmiadzin after his arrival at the Yerevan airport on Saturday. He was received by President Robert Kocharian later in the day.
He is due to end his visit before Tuesday’s arrival in Armenia of Pope John Paul II–ending speculation about a possible historic summit of the two rival churches on the sidelines of the anniversary celebrations.
Armenian church leaders and the delegations from Orthodox–Protestant–Coptic and Syriac denominations were expected to issue a joint statement condemning last week’s terrorist attacks in the United States. They prayed Friday for victims of the attacks at the medieval Khor Virap monastery in southern Armenia.
Catholicos Karekin II–said in a speech at Etchmiadzin that a closer cooperation among the religious leaders will contribute to peace in the world. He will preside over the blessing of a newly built Cathedral of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in Yerevan on Sunday. The cathedral will contain the relics of the first Armenian Catholicos–which were handed to Karekin by Pope John Paul II during a visit to the Vatican last November.
An ancient Armenian kingdom was the first in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD
Patriarch Alexiy II of Moscow and All Russia’said that the Russian Orthodox Church is "ready–if necessary–to initiate a meeting of the spiritual leaders of Armenia–Azerbaijan and Russia on the settlement of the Karabakh conflict," Itar-Tass reported.
In an interview with Itar-Tass upon arrival in Yerevan on Saturday–Alexiy II said that during his trip to Baku last May he and the Caucasus Moslem Board leader Sheikh al-Islam Allakhshukyur Pashezade had signed a joint declaration which laid down peaceful measures for the resolution of the Karabakh problem.
"At that time we agreed that a meeting of spiritual leaders who cannot make political decisions should be preceded by a meeting of the heads of state"–the patriarch said.
He believes that such coordination of efforts of secular and religious leaders can yield good results in establishing peace in the Caucasus.
Alexiy II was in Armenia to attend celebrations marking the 1700th anniversary of Christianity adoption by Armenia’s.
In reference to US plans to launch retaliatory attacks against Afghanistan–the Patriarch called a war between Christianity and Islam "inadmissible."
"We cannot start the 21st century with World War III," Alexiy II said. At the same time–he noted that if the US launches a retaliatory campaign–the strikes should be "pin-point" since otherwise "the whole nation of Afghanistan will suffer." Alexiy II also met with President Robert Kocharian.
In a related development a report by Reuters concerning Pope John Paul II visit to Armenia–scheduled for September 25-27– writes that the visit will be the highlight of celebrations to mark the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia.
Pope John Paul II is expected to bring a message of reconciliation among Christian denominations.
The report noted that more than 90 percent of Armenia’s–both at home and abroad–pledge allegiance to the Armenian Apostolic Church–which broke away from the Vatican in the sixth century.
Organizers promise that the 81-year-old pontiff–visiting at the invitation of Karekin II–head of the Armenian church–will not face the same hostility from Orthodox Christians that he encountered on previous visits to former Soviet republics.
"We think it is wonderful that the Holy Father is coming to celebrate the official proclamation of Christianity in Armenia with us," Bishop Paren Avetikyan is quoted by Reuters.
"We don’t think there is any issue to be settled between the Roman Catholic Church and the Armenian Church."
The Armenian church belongs to the Oriental Orthodox tradition–with sister churches in Syria–Egypt and Ethiopia.
The church helped preserve a national identity during centuries of conflict with neighboring Muslims in the territories which are now Turkey–Iran and Azerbaijan.
Armenia’s hope the Pope will talk about the Genocide during his visit.
In an apostolic letter written earlier this year–the pope referred to the "unheard-of violence" of 1915 but stopped short of using the word genocide or mentioning Turkey.
"The whole Armenian culture and spirituality has been pervaded by boldness characterized by the supreme sign of giving one’s life in martyrdom," he wrote.