Armenian Christians relish telling the story of how their ancient King Abgar is said to have sent a letter to Jesus Christ asking him to come to Edessa (modern-day Urfa in Turkey) and cure him of leprosy.
He invited Jesus to come live there and be free from the “Hebrew oppression” back home. Jesus is said to have declined the offer but vowed to send his disciples in due time.
As the story goes, the Apostle Thaddeus (Jude), after the Crucifixion, made the trip, treated the king and established the Church of Edessa, before moving on to Persia to spread the word.
It’s said that the Apostle Bartholomew also preached in Armenia, which adopted Christianity as its state religion in A.D. 301. It is recognized as the world’s oldest national church and maintains “Apostolic” in its name because of its direct ties to Christ’s two apostles.
That early history is celebrated at the Armenian Apostolic Church of Arizona in Scottsdale, which, on Jan. 27, marked the 50th anniversary of the formation of an Armenian community here. The first families had such surnames as Mehagian, Chakmakian, Injasoulian, Hosepian, Shirinian and Morrison.
The community received its first formal leadership and formed a congregation in 1963 in connection with the visit of Bishop Torkom Manoogian, then ecclesiastical leader for the Holy See of Ejmiatsin, Armenia, and now, at age 89, archbishop and patriarch of Jerusalem. At that first Holy Mass at the Hosepian home, “pocket change was collected as seeds for future endeavors,” according to parish history.
For 20 years, plans were developed for a permanent Arizona campus. According to church history, Archbishop Vatche Hovsepian, primate for the Western Diocese, and a team were looking at possible building sites for a church when an eagle was spotted above a vacant property on Cholla Street in Scottsdale. The clergyman “sighed and stated that ‘this vacant site is where we will build the first Armenian church in Arizona.’ ”
Initially, they built a 14,000-square-foot Armenian Church Cultural Center and Melikian Hall, which were dedicated in 1992, the same year Armenia was declared an independent republic after 70 years under Soviet control. That followed with the Armenian Educational and Social Center in 2000. Now the congregation of about 1,200 families is about to break ground for a church sanctuary expected to cost about $1.5 million.
Since last August, the church has been led by the Rev. Zacharia Saribekyan, 39, ordained in 1994 and trained in Israel and Palestine. He speaks Armenian, Arabic, Russian and English. Saribekyan has keen memories of the church in Armenia thriving despite communist efforts to suppress religious practices. He was in Germany when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The Armenian Apostolic Church claims about 94 percent of those living in the small nation, slightly larger than Maryland and wedged between Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
The Scottsdale church serves as the key way for families with Armenian heritage to preserve the language, culture and traditions, Saribekyan said. Social events are held every Friday at the church, 8849 E. Cholla St., and the two-hour services, in Armenian, are 10 a.m. Sunday.
“The majority of the Mass is on foot,” said 20-year church secretary Rita Bebekian. “When I visited Armenia, the old churches never had pews. They were never built with pews. It’s an Old World thing.”
The congregation holds a large festival in late fall that showcases the Armenian heritage.
They point proudly to the most famous Armenian-American, William Saroyan, the prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (1908-1981) from Fresno, Calif., who wrote extensively about the Armenian genocide of 1915-17. About 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire at the order of a sultan.
Millions of Armenian refugees scattered to many parts of the world.
Parish council member Berj Dikranian, 26, is a product of that diaspora of Armenians.
He has never visited his parents’ homeland, though he hopes to one day. He noted that the victims of the genocide are memorialized with a monument at Wesley Bolin Plaza in Phoenix.
“In previous years, we have had a silent march in downtown Phoenix and hold a candlelight vigil,” he said.
A major national symbol of Armenia is Mount Ararat, where Noah’s Ark is believed to have come to rest after the Great Flood. Although the nearly 17,000-foot mountain and treasured landmark is across the border in today’s Turkey, it was once part of Armenia.
In 1933 in the United States, the Armenian Apostolic Church split into two groups following the assassination of the Armenian archbishop in New York and debate over the treatment of Armenians in the Soviet Union. Today the two groups in the U.S. have about 414,000 and 360,000 members, respectively. The Arizona church is part of the larger Western Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church of North America.
The Scottsdale congregation is planning to invite the church’s world leader, His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos and Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians, to be on hand for the dedication and blessing of the sanctuary when it is complete. He made previous visits to the Arizona church in 2001 and 2005.