One of the highlights of visiting Armenia is taking advantage of the unique opportunity to attend Holy Mass on Sunday morning in Etchmiadzin, the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
After a hectic week of meetings followed by a politically charged soccer game between the Armenian and Turkish national teams, I looked forward to a relaxing and spiritually uplifting experience in Holy Etchmiadzin, on Sunday, September 7.
The Cathedralwas crowded as usual with hundreds of worshippers from Armenia and around the world. His Holiness Catholicos Karekin II was not present, as he had traveled to the Russian city of Rostov to consecrate a new Armenian Church.
In the middle of the Holy Mass, a man in his 20’s with European features suddenly stepped forward from the ran’s of the worshippers and stood right in the middle of the chancel — the enclosed area below the altar reserved for clergymen. He neither moved nor said anything. Everyone began to stare at him, wondering why he was there.
Since the young man was wearing a casual outfit and looked like a tourist, it seemed that he was trying to get a closer look at the magnificent altar of the Cathedral. Some may have thought that he had come forward a little early to take communion. No one anticipated what was about to happen next.
As this man’ presence in the chancel was distracting the worshippers, a church official went toward him to ask that he return to his proper place. Before the clergyman could speak to him, the intruder took a giant leap and landed on the five-foot high altar, as the worshippers gasped at the startling development.
When this suspicious individual approached the celebrant priest from behind, the eight deacons serving on the altar pounced on him, but amazingly, were not able to hold him down. As the confrontation turned into a brawl with bodies rolling on the altar, other clergymen and a worshipper rushed to help restrain the intruder.
Beyond the physical danger that the stranger posed, one immediate concern was the large cauldron resting on the edge of the altar, containing Holy Muron or Chrism which takes 40 days to prepare, every seven years. In the midst of the melee, the cauldron could have been easily tipped over, spilling its sacred contents — a grave sacrilegious act.
Miraculously, the cauldron was untouched! But as the brawl continued for a few more minutes, the young man grabbed the 400-year old precious altar curtain that had been donated by the Armenian community of India. For a moment, a congregant managed to release the curtain from the young man’s grasp, but as he was being carried down the altar steps by half a dozen deacons, he lunged at the curtain one last time and tore down that priceless church ornament, causing great sorrow to those witnessing the unfortunate incident.
Having disrupted the liturgy, the young man was carried outside the Cathedral and laid on the ground where he remained calm and showed no further signs of aggressiveness or resistance. He turned out to be an Australian tourist who reportedly had psychological problems. One of his companions said that he had not taken that morning all his psychiatric medications that controlled his disruptive behavior.
Due to the absence of the Catholicos and his immediate entourage, no one seemed to be in charge. Senior clergymen were not present at the Holy Badarak that morning. Some onlookers suggested that the young man’should be set free since he was a disturbed individual. Others angrily shouted that he should be taken into custody and interrogated since he tore the Cathedral’s priceless curtain.
Incredibly, there was not a single policeman or security guard in sight for more than half an hour. When I asked a church official why there was no security, he said that no one was allowed to carry a weapon on the sacred grounds of Etchmiadzin. After several phone calls to law officers and high-ranking government officials in Yerevan, two policemen’strolled in with no guns, not even a baton. A few minutes later, five other unarmed policemen’showed up. We were later told that the police had decided to detain the troublemaker.
Fortunately, no one was injured this time, even though the Badarak was disrupted, the holy altar desecrated, and a priceless church curtain sustained irreparable damage. The concern is that, unless Armenian officials learn a valuable lesson from this incident, the personal safety of His Holiness, the clergy, hundreds of worshippers and the Cathedral itself could be at risk, should an armed intruder gain access to church premises which totally lack security measures.
At the very least, there should be police officers stationed nearby to protect both the Cathedral and the Catholicosate compound. Unfortunately, gone are the days when the sanctity of a house of worship was respected. The tragic killings of several high-ranking officials in the Armenian Parliament 10 years ago should serve as a lesson not to be forgotten. Church leaders and government officials should take effective precautionary measures to prevent the occurrence of another major tragedy.