YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Archbishop Garegin Nersisian–the most likely candidate to become the next head of the Armenian Apostolic Church–denied on Wednesday rival clerics’ claim that the Armenian authorities are actively lobbying for his victory in the upcoming ecclesiastical election.
According to Nersisian–President Robert Kocharian has assured a delegation of bishops recently that "there will be no rude interference on the part of the state during the elections of Catholicos." He said the delegation was dispatched to Kocharian after two senior clerics told the Church’s Council of Bishops last month that unnamed government officials let them know whom Yerevan wants to see as the new Catholicos. Nersisian is widely believed to be the government’s preferred candidate.
Tensions have run high since six leading archbishops issued a statement earlier this month–warning against a government interference–which they said could split the Church.
"We don’t think that it was the best way of expressing personal concern and don’t share that approach," Nersisian told RFE/RL in an interview. "It is desirable that the elections of Catholicos be held in an atmosphere of calm and love. But that atmosphere is very often spoiled not only by clerics but also the media."
Dioceses of the Apostolic Church scattered all over the world have already elected 451 mostly secular delegates of the National Ecclesiastical Assembly which will name the new Catholicos. The Assembly is due to convene on October 26. Armenia will be represented with 160 delegates–most of them from the Ararat Diocese encompassing central Armenia. It is headed by Archbishop Nersisian.
Also causing controversy is the composition of the Ararat delegation–which includes the mayor of Yerevan and the police chief of the southern city of Ararat. But Nersisian insisted that they were elected in a fair ballot. "Our church does not differentiate between its faithful and does not separate them by position and circumstances," he said.
Among Nersisian’s strongest challengers are Archbishop Nerses Pozapalian–the Catholicosal Locum Tenens–Archbishop Parkev Martirosian–the Nagorno-Karabakh primate–and Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan of Istanbul.
Pozapalian on Wednesday visited the construction site of what is intended to become the biggest Armenian church in the world.
The future Saint Gregory the Illuminator’s cathedral in central Yerevan is due be completed by May 2001–at the height of official celebrations of the 1700th anniversary of declaring Christianity a state religion in Armenia.
"I hope that God will give the Armenian people a worthy 132nd Catholicos," Pozapalian declared after blessing construction workers.