BY LAWRENCE UZZELL
ASHGABAT–Turkmen’stan (Keston News Service–Resistance by the secular authorities and by the Moscow Patriarchate continues to prevent the Armenian Apostolic Church from reviving any of its parishes in Turkmen’stan–a Keston representative learned from various well-informed sources during a mid-July visit. So far the authorities still refuse to allow even the architectural restoration of a century-old Armenian church building in the town of Turkmenbashi on the Caspian Sea coast.
Turkmen’stan became part of the Russian Empire only in the late 19th century–and the Armenian form of Christianity has as strong a claim as the Russian Orthodox Church to be a `traditional religion’ there. Before the Bolshevik take-over the Armenian community maintained approximately six parishes within the borders of today’s Turkmen’stan–and to this day the republic has approximately 40,000 citizens of Armenian descent. Those who want to follow the faith of their ancestors–however–must content themselves with occasional restricted visits by Armenian priests from neighboring countries. One of those countries is Uzbekistan–which despite its generally authoritarian policies on religion has nevertheless allowed the reopening of an Armenian parish in Samarkand.
The Armenia’s are also trying to revive their parish in Ashgabat–Turkmen’stan’s capital–along with an Armenian cultural center. So far the authorities have refused to permit either. One well-informed source said that he thought that there was a roughly `fifty-fifty’ per cent chance of progress on these issues; he also opined that pressure from the West would hurt rather than help.
Meanwhile–the Armenian Embassy in Ashgabat is the site of a Sunday school focusing mainly on language and cultural lessons. Turkmen’stan citizens of Armenian descent who want liturgical services in a real church building have no choice but to attend one of the city’s two Russian Orthodox parishes.
The Armenian church is theologically and sacramentally distinct from the Orthodox Churches; the Oriental tradition to which it adheres separated from the rest of the Christian world in the fifth century AD. The secular authorities in Turkmen’stan–however–have in effect granted veto power over Armenian Christian activities to a Russian Orthodox priest–Rev. Andrei Sapunov who serves as a deputy chairman of the republic’s Council for Religious Affairs.
Mered Chariyarov–a staff consultant for the CRA–told Keston on July 11 that Rev. Sapunov handles all issues related to all Christian confessions. Chariyarov himself claimed never to have heard about the Armenian church building in Turkmenbashi. Keston requested a meeting with Father Sapunov but was told that he was out of town.