Armenia Church Leader Upbeat: Nation Can Inspire Neighbors, He Says

Article excerpt

The world leader of the Armenian Orthodox Church yesterday held out his nation, the first ancient convert to Christianity, as a possible beacon of democracy and church revival among the former Soviet republics.

"A whole new era of Armenian history is directed toward a new challenge, to make a free, democratic and independent state," said Patriarch Karekin I, elected last year as 131st pope, or catholicos, of all Orthodox Armenians.

On his first U.S. visit as catholicos, Patriarch Karekin cited last July's democratic elections and new constitution as signs of political progress and spoke of his challenge to revive a church and social morality.

"Imagine that we are coming out of 70 years of totalitarian, oppressive rule," he said in an interview.

The efforts to revive Armenian society, he said, have been set back by a 1988 earthquake, a war with neighboring Azerbaijan that began in 1991 - now in a year-old cease-fire - and a Turkish-led economic blockade.

"We do not look for any kind of foreign aid to replace our effort in our own country by our own people," he said. "We want that international solidarity to strengthen our hands . . . for the promotion of economic and social condiitions of our country."

The patriarch, at age 64 a fit and articulate scholar and church diplomat, is visiting his 1 million-member North American flock this week.

Yesterday, he thanked World Bank leaders in Washington for past humanitarian aid. This afternoon he meets with President Clinton.

A small Caucasus Mountain nation of 3.7 million, Armenia holds pride of place in Christendom for its conversion in 301 A.D.

After that it was overrun by the Persian, Mongol, Russian and Turkish empires before being forced into the Soviet sphere. …