World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Country profile: Armenia

"Church & country profiles" for several countries have been developed by the WCC Europe desk ahead of the 2006 assembly. Please note that these profiles are intended to serve as general references, and do not represent official policy positions of the World Council of Churches. The WCC strives to maintain accuracy in its information, but cannot be responsible for any mistakes or outdated information.

01 January 2004

"Church & country profiles" for several countries have been developed by the WCC Europe desk ahead of the 2006 assembly. Please note that these profiles are intended to serve as general references, and do not represent official policy positions of the World Council of Churches. The WCC strives to maintain accuracy in its information, but cannot be responsible for any mistakes or outdated information.


The World Council of Churches has always enjoyed a close relationship with Christians in Armenia, and particularly with the main church in the country, and its only member church, the Armenian Apostolic Church. In 1988, the WCC led international ecumenical efforts in response to the catastrophic earthquake in the country. In 1996, the WCC initiated an ecumenical Round Table programme with the Armenian Apostolic Church, which has supported efforts in the area of development, humanitarian aid and education.

Country situation

Armenia is an ancient country in a radically new situation. Armenians form a distinct group within the Indo-European family. It is the first nation to have officially adopted Christianity, in 301, but has enjoyed modern independence only since 1991. Armenian kingdoms have occupied a range of different territories in history. Following persecution and subsequently genocide under the Ottomans in 1915, never recognized by Turkey, Armenians enjoyed statehood only for a short period (1918-1921), after which time Armenia was integrated into the Soviet Union. Armenia declared independence again in 1991. The current territory of Armenia is a portion of the territory historically inhabited by Armenians. The country is ethnically homogenous, with approximately 95% of the population (estimated at around 3 million persons) classified as ethnic Armenian, following the departure of most ethnic Azeris during the Karabakh conflict (1988-1994).

Since achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia has sought to develop a multi-party democracy, although not without difficulties. The country has suffered profound economic disruption, poverty and conflict.

The general political situation in Armenia remains unstable. Presidential elections in 2003 were qualified as "flawed" by international observers. The internal political situation reflects the general complexity of the regional and international context of the country. Despite the common desire for proximity with Europe, the Caucasian states have only limited affinities. The frontiers with Azerbaidjan and Turkey remain closed, and, despite many commonalities, relations with neighbouring Georgia remain strained. Iran has therefore become one of the main trading partners of the country.

In 1988, the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, an overwhelmingly ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, and a treasury of Armenian Christian history, voted to secede and join Armenia. The Armenian "Karabakh committee" which supported secession was the first organized political opposition to be formed in the USSR. Anti-Armenian pogroms erupted in Azerbaidjan. In the armed conflict which followed with Azerbaidjan, thousands of people died or were displaced. Karabakh is now a self-declared republic with its own president, recognized only by Armenia. The conflict is not yet resolved, the Armenians holding the military advantage, although all sides refrain from hostilities, and an international group of countries is working towards a solution.

According to a recent Caritas Europe report, the change to a free market system, a governmental economic policy based on mass privatisation, and an unstable legal and political framework have brought Armenia to a critical juncture, characterised by a high level of unemployment, under-employment, low productivity, and ineffectiveness of the social welfare system. 80% of the population subsist beneath the food poverty line since their income is not sufficient even to meet basic nutritional needs. The most direct consequence is chronic malnutrition. This situation is exacerbated by the privatization of the health care services and the consequent escalation in costs for medical care. The high costs of education force an increasing number of students to abandon the school system. A movement of people from the countryside to the cities, or to seek work (mainly in Russia) creates particular difficulties for families and village life.

In December 1988, a massive earthquake hit the North of the country, devastating the cities of Spitak and Gyumri, killing thousands, and leaving tens of thousands without homes. The earthquake provoked massive international and ecumenical solidarity and assistance. But also revealed the profound disorganization and corruption of the Soviet authorities at all levels, and perhaps accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fifteen years after the earthquake, much of the material damage has been repaired, but the economic system has not been regenerated, and much of the population remains dependent on outside support. Symbolically, a church has been built, with the support of WCC, above the very epicentre of the earthquake in Spitak.

Church context

Armenian Apostolic Church

The Armenian Apostolic Church is the historical church of the country, although small Catholic and Evangelical churches have developed, mainly since the 19th century. As in other countries in the region, there is also a range of Pentecostal, neo-pagan and sectarian groups that have developed an activity in the ten years since Armenian independence from the USSR.

The Armenian Apostolic Church, also known as the Armenian Orthodox (or Gregorian) Church, has its origins in the first century, and Armenia became the first Christian nation in 301 following the conversion of King Tiridates III. The Armenian bishops were unable to attend the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and opposed its formula concerning the two natures of Christ. Since that time, the Armenian Church was wrongly named "monophysite", and today forms part of the Oriental Orthodox, or "pre-chalcedonian", family of churches. At the time of the medieval Armenian kingdom of Cilicia a second Armenian church centre was established, which is today based in Antelias, Lebanon. There are also Armenian Patriarchates in Jerusalem and Istanbul.

Today, around 90% of the Armenian population claims nominal membership in the Armenian Apostolic Church. There are an estimated 300 functioning Apostolic churches in Armenia, where a regular service is held, for a population of around 3 million. The Apostolic Church, despite its numerous formal adherents, is still emerging from Ottoman domination and the traumatic experience of Soviet oppression, when hundreds of priests were imprisoned or killed. The main result is a rupture in parish and monastic life, a lack of adequately trained and educated clergy, and a limited religious culture in the population. Since its new freedom after 1991, the Apostolic Church, under the energetic and visionary leadership of Catholicos Karekin I and his youthful successor Karekin II, has developed in remarkable ways. Churches have been built and restored, seminaries opened, and a new generation of clergy is completing training. The institutional and pastoral demands on the church are enormous, and the church is struggling to develop appropriate methodologies and instruments for its educational, missionary and spiritual tasks.

Catholic Church

The Armenian Catholic Church developed at the time of the crusaders and subsequently through Catholic missions. The Armenian Catholic congregation moved to Venice, Italy in 1717 where the Armenian Catholic order began. There are today an estimated 130,000 Armenian Catholics (Latin and Eastern rite, or Mekhitarist). The church is headed by an archbishop bishop and the Vatican is represented by a nuncio based in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Protestant churches

The first permanent Protestant mission among the Armenians began in 1831 through American efforts. In 1846 the first Armenian Evangelical Church was organized and a new Armenian Turkish Bible published. After the Ottoman authorities recognized a separate Protestant millet, or semi-autonomous community, Protestant missionaries worked to bring renewal to the church, although they encountered strong resistance from the Armenian Apostolic Church. Today, Evangelical and charismatic Protestants estimate their combined membership at around 10,000 members. There are also active Pentecostal groups, although precise numbers are difficult to calculate. A small Evangelical theological school functions in Yerevan.

Other religions

Islam has a long history of domination over Armenians. In the 1990s the number of Muslims in Armenia reduced sharply due to emigration at the time of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. There is also a significant community of Kurds (50-70,000 people), most of whom are Muslim, but some of whom practice a form of Zoroastrianism. Since the early 1990s, Armenia has also attracted diverse esoteric and sectarian groups.

Church-state relations

Armenian Church history has experienced quite diverse relationships with the state. Recognized as the state religion in 301, Christians experienced periods of freedom and persecution under successive foreign dominations. The Russian imperial authorities restricted church activities in the early 20th century. In Soviet Armenia, the Church suffered ridicule, pressures and at times violence, although not the systematic persecution of other churches in the USSR. The Armenian Constitution provides for freedom of religion. The 1991 Law on Freedom of Conscience, amended in 1997, establishes the separation of church and state, but grants the Armenian Apostolic Church an honorary status as the national church. All other religions and related organizations are required to be registered. In 2001, a concordat was signed between the Apostolic Church and the State, which regulates the relationships and defines the rights of the church. The Apostolic Church cultivates a public role and close relations between church and government leaders exist at the personal level.

Although the Church is separated from the State in Armenia, there is some criticism of religious freedom by the competent international organizations. The situation varies widely at the local level, and is largely based on the personal relations of church leaders with regional or village authorities. The "privileges" of the majority church remain relatively limited. Financial support is restricted to maintenance of historical buildings, the Church has received little compensation for property lost during the communist regime, and only in 2002 has the Church been granted access to teach in state schools. The Apostolic Church has developed teaching materials, and is training teachers to carry out this task.

Although freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed, the minority churches, and especially new religious group such as the Jehovah's witnesses, perceive their rights and freedoms as limited by both the State, and at times, by the majority Apostolic Church. In a characteristic trend in the region, there is a tension between the perceived historical and community role for "all Armenians" of the Apostolic Church, and the more individual, Westernized and missionary zeal of the minority churches. However, the State registers and tolerates most religious groups without restriction (with the exception of Jehovah's Witnesses), minority churches carry out their ministries with little hindrance, and the Prime Minister has recently established a State committee on religious affairs where the representatives of all the main churches sit alongside government representatives.

Inter-church relations

The relations among the churches are complex but stable. The dominant Apostolic Church is considered as the "national church" but has had to face the dynamic revival of the previously banned Armenian Catholic Church, mainly in the historically "Catholic villages" around Gyumri, and the arrival of new Protestant churches. The historical Baptist Church has been joined by numerous Evangelical and Pentecostal groups of diverse origin. The most influential of these is the re-founded Armenian Evangelical Church, with close ties to its sister churches in the USA and Middle East. There is a deeply-rooted societal suspicion of non-traditional religious groups, which is reinforced by some media.

Internationally, church relations are less strained. The Armenian Apostolic Church has official relations with the Anglican Church and other major Protestant churches. The visit of Pope John-Paul II to Armenia in late 2001 for the 1700th anniversary of the official adoption of Christianity was a confirmation of the close historical relations with the Roman Catholic Church. Although few relations exist with the Orthodox in neighbouring Georgia, the current Armenian Catholicos Karekin I, educated in Moscow, has developed a warm relationship with the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, which parallels the important political and cultural ties of the two countries. The Catholicos is encouraging a renewed contact with the other Oriental Orthodox Churches (Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian and Syrian). Relations with WCC are generally positive, and have been significantly reinforced through the Round Table programme, and the leadership of the WCC has regularly visited Armenia. In an unexpected act of ecumenical "hospitality", Armenian bishops at the CEC Assembly in Trondheim, Norway, in 2003 invited all participants, Orthodox and Protestant, to receive communion during the Armenian Liturgy which they celebrated.

WCC involvement in Armenia

The Armenian Apostolic Church has been a member of WCC since 1962, and WCC led a major ecumenical response to the dramatic Armenian earthquake of 1988. The ecumenical Armenia Round Table programme (ART) was set up in 1996, on the initiative of the Armenian Apostolic Church and of the World Council of Churches, with the participation of the Armenian Catholic and Armenian Evangelical churches, and under the patronage of Catholicos Karekin I (d. 1999). It brings together Armenian churches, local non-governmental organisations, and church-related partners with a shared commitment to working together to address some of the fundamental social and economic problems of the country.

Since its establishment in 1996, the Round Table programme has developed its activities significantly, and is today provides the primary interface between the WCC, international ecumenical partners and the local churches. The involvement and support of the Armenian churches remains positive and consistent. It is significant that the Apostolic Church hosts the small Round Table office with six staff in the Mother See at Etchmiadzin, in the heart of the church's administrative and spiritual centre. The programme, while relatively modest in financial terms, has gained national and symbolic recognition. UNDP Armenia notes that ?the Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic and Evangelical churches are implementing coordinated Christian and charitable projects. Hundreds of good deeds have been carried out by ECLOF and the Armenian Round Table of the World Council of Churches.

The Round Table programme has developed work in a range of sectors. Some key highlights from the dozens of projects implemented in the recent period include:

  • Christian Education: textbook development and publication, support for Sunday school teachers
  • Social diakonia: support for soup kitchens for vulnerable elderly people
  • Ecumenical information: establishment of a resource centre in the University and a series of seminars on ecumenical issues
  • Education: Establishment of Social Service Centres and comprehensive teacher training programme, establishment of computer rooms and training
  • Agriculture and development: Training and support of organic dry fruit production in highly vulnerable regions; establishment of cattle breeding projects and multiple agricultural projects
  • Church restoration in Kapan and Etchmiadzin
  • Emergency assistance for drought victims with ACT International

Particular note should be given to developments in the field of education. The Round Table programme has developed projects for religious education, ecumenical information and support for the seminaries (both Apostolic and Evangelical). More recently, a major programme has been initiated in one region to support the professional development - and social support - of school teachers. Armenia had historically been characterised by one of the highest concentrations of tertiary (post-graduate) education in Europe. The school sector has been negatively impacted by the economic collapse that followed independence from the Soviet Union. Teachers are low-paid (or not paid at all), child school enrolment has dropped, mainly due to domestic poverty, and basic teacher continuing formation has practically ceased. The Round Table programme, supported by several ecumenical agencies, aims to reverse this trend by offering training, professional and social support and new methodologies and materials to rural schoolteachers, under the auspices of the Apostolic Church. It is a remarkable example of how the church is engaging in a creative way with the broader needs of society, facilitated by WCC and the broader ecumenical family.


Despite improvements in the immediate socio-economic situation compared with the early 1990s, Armenia remains an impoverished and unstable country. The churches have developed their witness and service in society in impressive and creative ways. The ongoing programmatic commitment of WCC in Armenia is much valued for its material but also symbolic and relational qualities. In the context of the Special Commission process and the difficult relations beween the Orthodox churches and the WCC, the Armenia Round Table programme offers a positive and developing example of WCC long-term engagement in a predominantly Orthodox context. However, new challenges are emerging for the churches in the country, particularly in relation to issues of church-state relations, and the arrangements for religious education in schools. Threats to regional stability also exist, the Karabakh conflict remains unresolved, and churches are looking for ways in which to enhance their conflict-prevention role. WCC will continue close collaboration with churches in these emerging areas of priority.