(left)Members of St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church sing Wednesday during His Holiness Karekin II's visit as part of a tour of several U.S. cities. Karekin anointed the Northwest Side church's new door. (Tribune photo by José M. Osorio / October 24, 2007)
(above left)Children greet His Holiness Karekin II (center) Wednesday during his visit to St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church on Chicago's Northwest Side. Karekin is leader of the world's 7 million Armenian Orthodox Christians, including 1 million in the United States and about 10,000 in the Chicago area. Karekin, making his first trip to Chicago, blessed St. Gregory's new door, told Armenians to remember their faith and culture, and urged those who have left the church to return. (Tribune photo by José M. Osorio / October 24, 2007)
(above right)His Holiness Karekin II climbs a stepladder Wednesday to anoint St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church's new door with holy oil. (Tribune photo by José M. Osorio / October 24, 2007)
Spiritual journey comes to Chicago
By Margaret Ramirez and Karoun Demirjian Tribune staff reporters
9:49 PM CDT, October 24, 2007
Robed in gold and black vestments with a jeweled cross over his forehead, His Holiness Karekin II, patriarch of the worldwide Armenian Apostolic Church, anointed a Chicago Armenian church Wednesday and urged his people to remain on the path toward faith.
Outside St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church on the Northwest Side, old and new generations of Armenians sang hymns of their nation as Karekin climbed onto a stepladder and blessed the new, bronze doors. As the crowd watched, he dipped his thumb in holy oil and traced a cross above the entry. Inside, Karekin told more than 200 worshipers the anointing of the doors was a symbolic gesture to remind Armenians to continue living their Christian faith.
My exhortation to you all . . . is to walk always in the ways that are leading you to the church," Karekin said. "With God, we have stayed together. . . . Faith in God has helped us survive."
As Catholicos of all Armenians, Karekin is the spiritual leader of the world's 7 million Armenian Orthodox Christians, including 1 million in the United States and about 10,000 in the Chicago area. This pontifical trip is Karekin's second visit to the U.S. and his first to Chicago.
"I'm overwhelmed by this visit by His Holiness," said Raelene Ohanesian, 33, who wept after the patriarch blessed her. "He represents our heritage, our conversion to Christianity. We have such a long history of struggle and it's our faith that has gotten us through."
Before the blessing at St. Gregory, Karekin met with Chicago's Roman Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Francis George. On Wednesday night, the Armenian patriarch also attended a public prayer service with ecumenical leaders at a Greek Orthodox church in Glenview.
Karekin's trip has taken him to New York, Boston, and Washington to spread a message of "Bringing Faith Home." He has stressed efforts to remember faith and culture and to bring back Armenians who have left the church.
Karekin's visit comes on the heels of an explosive debate in Washington regarding a painful piece of Armenian history. Earlier this month, a congressional committee approved a nonbinding resolution that condemns as genocide the killing of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey nearly a century ago. The resolution, though largely symbolic, unleashed an international furor that offended the Turkish government, a key supporter of the American presence in Iraq. President Bush opposed the resolution, saying it could damage efforts to end the war in Iraq.
At an interview in his hotel suite at the Four Seasons, Karekin said the recognition of the killings as genocide is necessary to prevent further atrocities. He expressed disappointment that the resolution had faced opposition in Congress due to Turkey's logistical importance in the war.
"The best way to prevent similar kinds of atrocities is through recognition and condemnation," Karekin said. "Values such as these should never be sacrificed for political interests.
"Our people are a Christian people. . . . In spite of all the crimes committed against Armenia, our people have never been filled with hate toward the Turkish people."
Though Karekin did not speak of the genocide resolution at St. Gregory, it was on the minds of many. Karekin offered a special blessing to 100-year-old Helen Polaian, a survivor of the genocide.
"It happened," said Diane Abezetian, "regardless of the resolution or what anyone says. We know it happened."
Although the community is united politically, the religious identity is strained by division within the Armenian church. The church became divided administratively about 50 years ago as the former Soviet Union curbed religious freedom. Some Armenian churches broke off and switched allegiance to the Lebanon-based See of Cilicia. Others remained loyal to the Armenia-based church.
Today, Armenia is an independent republic, but the split in the church remains. One branch is headed by Karekin and based in the Armenian city of Etchmiadzin. The other is led by His Holiness Aram I and based in Lebanon. As supreme patriarch, Karekin is pre-eminent. The division means there are two Armenian archbishops in the United States—Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan, who reports to Aram, and Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, who is under Karekin.
When asked if there was any hope for reconciliation, Karekin said church leaders have formed committees to discuss healing the rift.
"You cannot have two bishops. I am hopeful we will one day have a solution," he said.
Those tensions were clear even in Chicago's small but vibrant Armenian community. Armenian churches in Chicago that are not under Karekin felt snubbed by the visit, saying they had not been invited to attend.
"We were hoping that the diocese church would officially invite us to this important event, but what can we say?" said Archpriest Zareh Sahakian of Armenian All Saints Apostolic Church in Glenview. "Since we have not received any official invitation, how can we ask people to attend from the altar? . . . Everyone is free to go. But I'm not excited because I'm not invited."
But those tensions could not overshadow the joy felt Wednesday by those in the presence of Karekin."It felt personal, like he was speaking directly to me," Nancy Berberian said. "He says you have a choice in life and you should always choose the walk of faith."
But those tensions could not overshadow the joy felt Wednesday by those in the presence of Karekin.
"It felt personal, like he was speaking directly to me," Nancy Berberian said. "He says you have a choice in life and you should always choose the walk of faith."