Short history of the Artsakh Diocese

During the first century, Christianity spread throughout Armenia, reaching the eastern border of the country, where the 10 historic Armenian provinces of Artsakh are located. The Apostle Thaddeus who brought Christianity to Armenia was martyred on the border of Artsakh in Artaz. Eghishe (Elisha), one of his disciples, carried word of Thaddeus’ martyrdom to Jerusalem, whereupon he was ordained, returning to Aghvank (Caucasian Albania) to continue his teacher’s mission. Soon Elisha too met his teacher’s fate. However, over the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the religious landscape transformed completely, culminating in Armenia’s conversion to Christianity by St. Gregory the Illuminator.

Returning from Caesarea, St. Gregory the Illuminator founded churches throughout Armenia, one of which was the Church of Amaras, where he established the Armenian Diocese of Aghvank.

The Artsakh Diocese is the successor to the Armenian Diocese of Aghvank.

As noted by Paustos Buzand (Favst of Vizantin), St.Gregory the Illuminator’s charisma was so strong that when the rulers of Aghvank came to King Trdat the Great to seek a bishop for their diocese, they requested St. Gregory's 15-year-old grandson Grigoris. Grigoris built Amaras monastery, then became a missionary. Grigoris was the first bishop of the Diocesan Seat at Amaras.

Grigoris was martyred in 338, by order of King Sapesan Arshakuni of the Mazkuts. His faithful followers collected his ashes and buried them in Amaras.

When Christianity was declared the state religion of the Armenian Kingdom of Aghvank, St. Mesrop Mashtots, with the help of his local assistant, Benjamin, developed the alphabet for the Aghvan language and established one of the first Armenian language academies in Amaras.

In the churches of Aghvank, daily services were held in Armenian and the bishops were ordained by the Catholicos of Armenians. The episcopal see continued to be situated in Amaras.

During the years following the Battle of Avarayr (451), the wave of Persian violence unleashed in Armenia reached Artsakh. However, as a result of the Treaty of Nvarsak, Armenia received a certain degree of local autonomy and retained the right to freely practice Christianity. The newly established Aghvank province likewise received this right. Within its territory, bounded by the Kur River, Artsakh-Utik had administrative autonomy under the rule of King Vachagan. During those years, King Vachagan, who had been forced by the Persians to accept paganism, returned to Christianity. Through Artsakh, the sects were uprooted, and 365 churches were built, symbolic of the days of the year.

During the years of Persian rule, the Sassanians encouraged the anti-Chalcedonian position of the Aghvan Church to ward off Byzantine influence. The Armenian Church remained at the forefront of the anti-Chalcedonian movement.

At the Council of Dvin in 503, the Aghvan Church accepted monophysitism, and at the second Council of Dvin in 551 the Aghvan Church and Armenian Church finally broke with the Byzantine Church.

From that time forward, the Aghvan Church became part of the Armenian Church hierarchy.

When Vahan Mamikonian was governor, new administrative and political circumstances required that the Aghvan people have their own Catholicos, since it was difficult for the Armenian Catholicos to oversee each of the Dioceses in Aghvank separately.

Thus, the new office of Catholicos of Aghvank was established, known as «Catholicos of Aghvank, Lpnik and Chogh». In 552 the Aghvan Church moved its headquarters from Amaras to Partav, the new capital of Aghvank, and Abas (552-596) was named Catholicos. Dioceses were established in Partav, Chogh (northern Aghvank near Derbend), Lpnik (western Aghvank, on the north bank of the Kur River), Kabaghak, Amaras, Hashu, Taghdzank, Shaki, Metsaran and Glkho. Ultimately the dioceses of Aghvank were under the jurisdiction of the Catholicos of Armenians who ordained their bishops.

From 591 to 626 the Chalcedonian movement again emerged in the region. The Georgian Church turned Chalcedonian in 609. However, the Armenian and Aghvan clergy remained strenuously opposed to Byzantine hegemony.

The Arab invasions put an end to the spread of ChaIcedonianism and the Aghvan Church continued to function under the jurisdiction of Holy Etchmiadzin, as one of the hierarchical sees of the Armenian Church. During this period, the Aghvan Catholicos on occasion presided over the national assemblies convened to elect the Catholicos of Armenians.

In the 11th century, the Mother See of the Aghvan Church moved from Partav to the summer residence in Bertakur, on the bank of the Trtu (Tartar) River. In the 12th century, during the reign of King Palisos, it moved again to Khmish Monastery in Miapor Province.

Gandzasar Monastery was come into bloom in the 13th century. From 1216 to 1238, Hasan Jalal-Dola, Prince of Lower Khachen built at Gandzasar on the location of the former church a new church, St. John the Baptist Church in veneration of his great sanctity and preservation his relics, in particular his head, at the site. A new leadership was established in Artsakh, which gained rapid ascendancy starting in 1240. At the end of the 14th century, the Aghvan Catholicate moved to Gandzasar, whose ecclesiastical hierarchy was drawn primarily from the Hasan Jalalian family.

The Aghvan Catholicate continued to be an integral part of the Catholicate of Etchmiadzin and came to known as the Catholicate of Gandzasar.

Gandzasar evolved into the spiritual and political center of Artsakh. In 1687 Catholicos Yeremia of Gandzasar convened a secret meeting for Artsakh’s liberation, and Yesayi Hasan Jalaliants was one of the leading advocates of that struggle. In that very place he called a secret council in 1701, which dispatched Israel Ori to seek assistance from Europe and Russia for the liberation of Artsakh from the Islamic yoke of Persia. From the mid-17th to the 19th centuries, a rival see to the Catholicos of Gandzasar was established in Yerits Mankants (Three Youths) Monastery in Khachen.

In 1813 Artsakh was annexed by Russia pursuant to the Treaty of Gulistan. At that time, there were 1311 churches and monasteries operating in the territory, commonly understood to cover the Artsakh and

Utik states of Greater Armenia. According to the noted 7th-century «Geography» of Anania Shirakatsi,

this area comprised 22,843 sq. km.,of which Artsakh covered 11,528 sq. km.,and Utik, 11,315 sq. km. Accordingly, there was one monastery or church for every 17 sq. km. In 1815, the Tsarist Government decreed the elimination of the Gandzasar Catholicate and the establishment of a Metropolitan instead. The regions and provinces formerly under the Gandzasar Catholicate were divided into dioceses (Artsakh, Gandzak, Shamakh) under the auspices of the Catholicate of Etchmiadzin. The Artsakh diocese comprised Varanda, Khachen, Dizak, Berdadzor, Jraberd, Gulistan, Lankaran, Shaki, Kapaghak, Haji, Khedi, Kabachan, and Arash provinces.

The first metropolitan of the new diocese was Sargis Catholicos, who reigned until 1828. He was succeeded by his nephew, Baghdasar, also of the Hasan-Jalalian family, who was renowned cultural figure. Pursuant to the Tsarist Decree of March 11, 1836, which came to be known as the Polozhenie, the Armenian Church in the Russian Empire was divided into six dioceses, of which Artsakh was the fifth. The Artsakh Diocese survived until 1930, when Azerbaijan closed the diocese with the support of the Soviet authorities.

For nearly 60 years, Armenian Church bells fell silent in Artsakh. All the churches and monasteries were closed, and a great many were destroyed. However, people of Artsakh never lost their faith and in 1988 the Karabakh Movement burst forth. Spiritual life was reawakened.

In 1989 the Armenian Apostolic Church re-established the Artsakh Diocese by Catholicos of All Armenians Vazgen I based on the 1836 boundaries. The esteemed religious leader Bishop Pargev Martirosyan was appointed Primate of the new diocese.

In addition, Fr. Mikayel Vardapet Ajapahyan, Fr. Vrtanes Vardapet Abrahamyan, Fr. Tadeos Gevorgyan and Fr. Mkrtich Tovmasyan made major contributions to the spiritual life in the new diocese.

Gandzasar Monastery was reestablished. On October 1, 1989, the Divine Liturgy was celebrated by Bishop Pargev in St. John the Baptist Church after a long hiatus.

In the following years, spiritual life has gained momentum in Artsakh. The clergy of the diocese, under the primate's leadership, participated and provided encouragement to the Armenian soldiers during the struggle for liberation, and a new free and independent Republic of Nagorno – Karabakh was established in Artsakh.

Dn. Rafayel Khachatryan, Clerk Armen Tovmasyan, and Diocesan driver Gurgen Arzumanyan gave their lives in defense of Artsakh. Long-neglected monasteries and churches were restored, and new churches were built.

On May 8, 1992, the Armenians liberated the ancient Armenian city of Shushi from the brutal Azeri yoke and there established the See of the Armenian Church in Artsakh. The mother cathedral, Holy Savior Church (Ghazanchetsots) was restored and reconsecrated.

Over the past 30 years, 93 churches, monasteries and chapels have been re-built and restored in Artsakh. The diocese has published about 100 books.

By the beginning of the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the new opening of the Diocese, on April 7, 2019, on the feast of the Annunciation of the Holy Virgin, the newly built Cathedral of St. Virgin Mary was consecrated in the capital of Artsakh Stephenakert.

The first liturgy was served by His Holiness the Catholicos of All Armenians Garegin II.

Since its founding, the Artsakh diocese has enjoyed the special attention and care of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin and the Catholicos of All Armenians: Vazgen the First, Garegin the First and Garegin the Second.

In parallel with its spiritual mission, the Artsakh Diocese has always been attentive to the security of our people and the improvement of the social situation. It has used its potential to the maximum by calling on the Armenians of the world to partake in the holy Armenian cause. Thanks to the efforts of the Diocese, our army has been equipped with the newest technologies and many other resources.

During the Artsakh wars, the Artsakh Diocese was in the center of the national struggle and suffered many hardships. Many churches, ancient monasteries and sanctuaries were taken from their real owners and destroyed. However, these numerous wounds could not distract the Artsakh Diocese from its sacred mission, just as crucifying Christ did not allow evil to kill life. Today, despite our great losses, the Artsakh Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church has revived again and has great will and vision for its rebuilding. The newly appointed Primate of the Artsakh Diocese, Bishop Vrtanes Abrahamyan, brings new meaning and quality to the activities of the Diocese through new projects, tries to be more present in the spiritual life of our people, and to be God's translator into the life of the Artsakh people in the post-war period.

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