The Catholicossate of Cilicia*



The Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon has published a book that serves as a "general view of the Catholicosate of Cilicia".  It includes a brief historical survey, a biographical sketch of the Catholicosate, and more.  Below is the Brief Historical Survey section of the book. *

Quick Access Topics


nChristianity in Armenia

nA Migrating Catholicosal  Seat

nTwo Catholicosates within the Armenian Church

n The Catholicosate in Antelias, Lebanon

nThe Multi-Faceted Role of the Catholicosate of Cilicia

The Catholicosate of Cilicia: A Brief Historical Survey


On the seashore of Antelias, a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, are located the headquarters of the Catholicosate of Cilicia.  The history of the Catholicosate of Cilicia is closely linked to the life of the Armenian people.

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Christianity in Armenia


The origin of the Armenian Church dates back to the Apostolic Age.  According to the ancient tradition which is well supported by historical evidence, Christianity was preached in Armenia as early as in the second half of the first century by the two disciples of Jesus Christ, namely, St. Thaddeus (John 14:22-24) and St. Bartholomew (John 1:43-51).  During the first three centuries, Christianity in Armenia was a hidden religion under heavy persecution.  It was at the beginning of the fourth century (301) that Christianity was officially accepted by the Armenian Nation as the state religion.  St. Gregory the Illuminator, the patron Saint of the Armenian Church, and King Tiridates III, the ruler of the time, played a pivotal role in the "Christianization" of Armenia.  It is a well recognized historical fact that the Armenians were the first nation to formally adhere to Christianity.  This conversion was followed in the fourth and fifth centuries by a process of institutionalization and "Armenization" of Christianity in Armenia.


The Chapel of Martyrs of Armenian Genocide (1915) in Antelias

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A Migrating Catholicosal Seat


St. Gregory the Illuminator became the organizer of the Armenian Church hierarchy.  The line of the Heads of the Armenian Church starts with him.  It is important to note that the Heads of the Armenian Church right from the beginning have been called Catholicos* and still hold the same title.

* The Catholicos is the person who receives special consecration (anointing) which is one of the most elaborate ceremonies of the Armenian Church.  Canonically, historically and traditionally the Catholicos in the Armenian Church has two major rights and privileges that exclusively belong to him: a) The consecration of bishops; b) The blessing of Muron (Holy Chrism).  These two rights are equally reserved to the Catholicos of Etchmiadzin and the Catholicos of Cilicia.

Within the Armenian Church there are also two Sees that are known under the name of Patriarchates: The Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Patriarchate of Constantinople.  The Heads of these two Sees have the rank of Archbishops who enjoy a certain degree of internal autonomy, but their ecclesiastical rank is not equal to that of the Catholicos.  That is why they cannot consecrate their bishops nor bless the Holy Chrism.  Their bishops are consecrated by the Catholicos of All Armenians of Etchmiadzin.  Of course, these patriarchates are historically and in the present times very important church centers, but canonically not on the same level as the Catholicosate.

St. Gregory chose as the site of the Catholicosate the then capital city of Vagharshapat, in Armenia.  He built the pontifical residence next to the church called "Holy Mother of God" (which in recent times would take on the name of St. Etchmiadzin, meaning the place where the Only-Begotten Son has descended) according to the vision in which he saw the Only-Begotten Son of God coming down from heaven with a golden hammer in his hand to locate the site of the new cathedral to be built in 302.

The continuous upheavals which characterized the political scene of Armenia made the political power move to safer places.  The church center moved as well to different locations together with the political authority.  Thus, in 485, the Catholicosate was transferred to the new capital Dvin.  In the 10th century it moved from Dvin to Dzoravank and Aghtamar (927), then to Arghina (947) and Ani (992).  After the fall of Ani and the Armenian Kingdom of Bagradits in 1045, when masses of Armenians migrated to Cilicia, the Catholicosate, together with the people, settled there.  It was first established as Thavblour (1062), then in Dzamendav (1072) and in Dzovk (1116), then in Hromkla (1149) for nearly 150 years, and finally in Sis (1293), the capital city of the Cilician Kingdom, where it remained for the last seven centuries.

After the fall of the Armenian Kingdom in Cilicia, in 1375, the Church would also assume the role of national leadership, and the Armenian Catholicos would come to be recognized also as ethnarch (Head of Nation).  This national responsibility would considerably broaden the scope of the Church's mission.

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Two Catholicossates Within the Armenian Church


The forearm of the Apostle St. Thaddeus, one of the First Enlighteners of the Armenian Church, a most important spiritual relic, is preserved in Holy Echmiadzin, under the care of His Holiness, the Catholicos of All Armenians.


The existence of two Catholicosates within the Armenian Church viz. the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin (the Catholicosate of All Armenians), Etchmiadzin, Armenia, and the Catholicosate of Cilicia, Antelias, Lebanon, is due to historical circumstances.  In the 10th century, when Armenia was devastated by the Seljuks, many Armenians left their homeland and came to settle in Cilicia where they re-organized their political, ecclesiastical and cultural life.  The Catholicosate too took refuge with the Armenians in Cilicia.  For almost four centuries (10th -14th cent.) the center of the  Armenian political and ecclesiastical life was in Cilicia.  In 1375, the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia was destroyed.  Cilicia became a

The Cilician Museum and Library of the Catholicosate

battleground between Seljuks, Mamluks, and other invading powers.  In the meantime, Armenia was having a relatively peaceful time.  The deteriorating situation in Cilicia on the one hand, and the growing cultural and ecclesiastical awakening in Armenia on the other, led the Bishops of Armenia to elect a Catholicos in Etchmiadzin.  The latter was the original seat of the Catholicosate, but it had ceased to function as a Catholicossal See after485.  Thus, in 1441 a new Catholicos was elected in Etchmiadzin in the person of Kirakos Virapetsi.  At the same time, Krikor Moussabekiants (1439-1446) was the Catholicos in Cilicia.  Since 1441, therefore, there have been two Catholicosates in the Armenian church with equal rights and privileges and with their respective jurisdictions.  The primacy of honor of the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin has always been recognized by the Catholicosate of Cilicia.


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The Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias, Lebanon


During the First World War (1915-1918), two million Armenians were massacred by the Turks.  In 1921, when the French forces evacuated Cilicia, a second wave of massacres ordered by the Kemalist Turkey took the lives of another 300,000 Armenians.  The rest of the Armenians were forced to leave their homeland and found refuge mostly in Syria and Lebanon.  The Catholicosate in Sis was confiscated and ruined by the Turks.  Catholicos Sahak II followed the exile of his flock.

After wandering to and for Syria and Lebanon, in 1930 he established the Catholicosate in Antelias, Lebanon.  Thus, a new era opened in the history of the Cilician Catholicosate with the organization of Dioceses and the founding of a new Theological Seminary.  The Armenian people spread all over the world looked at the Catholicosate with new hopes and expectations.

In order to fulfill the great task now entrusted to the Catholicosate of Cilicia in the Armenian Diaspora, Catholicos Sahak II, already advanced in age, asked the help of Archbishop Babgen Gulesserian, who was enthroned as Coadjutor-Catholicos in 1931.  Soon a printing press was established in Antelias and a monthly review under the name HASK (Ear of Corn) started to get published regularly together with a number of religious, educational, historical, and philological publications.  The Coadjutor-Catholicos Babgen passed away in 1936, after five years of intensive and most fruitful activities.

The Archbishop of the Armenians in Cyprus, Petros Sarajian was nominated Vicar-General to Catholicos Sahak.  By the donation of Simon and Mathilde Kayekjian, the property of the Catholicosate was purchased from the American Near East Relief, which from 1922 to 1928 had run an Armenian orphanage in the same place where the Catholicosate was established.  The Cathedral was built through the donation of an unknown benefactor, whose name, Sarkis Kenadjian, was announced only after his death.  A Chapel in memory of the two million Armenian martyr as well as a residence for the Catholicos and a new Seminary building were built one after the other.

Catholicos Sahak passed away in 1939.  He was succeeded by his Vicar Catholicos Petros I, who passed away the following year.

The election of the new Catholicos took place in 1943, in the person of Archbishop Karekin Hovsepiants, the


The Seminary buildings and chapel, Bikfaya, Lebanon

Primate of the Armenian Church in North America.  During his pontificate (1945-1952), the Catholicosate flourished primarily in the area of cultural activities.  The Catholicos himself being a great scholar, encouraged the higher studies in the Seminary and gave impetus to publication.  The scope of the work of the Catholicosate was considerably widened.

Four years elapsed between his death and the election of his successor, Catholicos Zareh I Payaslian (1956-1963), the first graduate of the Seminary of Antelias.  Catholicos Zareh was an experienced church leader in Syria, having served as Primate of Aleppo for sixteen years.  During his short-lived reign, the service of the Catholicosate was extended to the communities in the Diaspora who had been in desperate need of spiritual care for many years.  The Seminary was given particular attention and his personal insights and saintly life had a determining influence on the students who would enter the service of the church and the people.  The relations of the Catholicosate with the other churches and the states of the Middle East were strengthened.  In 1962 the Catholicosate of Cilicia became a full member of the World Council of Churches and sent observers to the Vatican Council.

His close  associate,  Archbishop Khoren Paroyan, the Primate of the Armenian Church in Lebanon succeeded him in 1963. Under his pontificate the Catholicosate of Cilicia went through an unprecedented era of achievements in various domains. Through his strenuous efforts the Catholicosate reached financial stability; the terrain of the Catholicosate was expanded and new constructions came to meet the growing needs of the Catholicosate.

In 1977, Catholicos Khoren wished to have a Coadjutor to assist him. Archbishop Karekin Sarkissian, the Primate of the  Eastern Diocese of the USA was elected Coadjutor-Catholicos. Although 18 years of his  pontificate were difficult years in Lebanon, because of civil war, Catholicos Karekin II did elevate the Catholicosate of Cilicia to  new  level of  witness and service. He strengthened the capabilities of the printing house, restarted the publication of the annual "Hask Armenological", established the  Christian Education Department,  organized seminars on contemporary issues, and  enlarged the scope of the  ecumenical involvement of the Catholicosate.

In April 1995 Catholicos Karekin II was elected Catholicos of All Armenians in Etchmiadzin, Armenia.  In June of the same year Archbishop Aram Keshishian, the Primate of the Armenian Church in Lebanon was elected Catholicos by an Electoral Assembly composed of 185 delegates (two third lay people and one third clergymen according to the By-laws of the Cilician Catholicosate) representing the dioceses of the Catholicosate.


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The Multi-Faceted Role of the Catholicosate of Cilicia


The role of the Cilician Catholicosate has incorporated various dimensions and spheres of the life of the Armenian people.  It is important to identify some of the major ones:

-Throughout its history, and especially in difficult times, the Catholicosate of Cilicia has always been actively present in the life of the Armenian people.  It has played a leading and significant role particularly in the educational, cultural, and social spheres.  After the Genocide, it brought an important contribution to the formation and the organization of the Armenian Diaspora.

-Being itself a victim of the Armenian Genocide, the Cilician Catholicosate played a key role in the presentation of the Armenian Cause to international circles.  It also significantly helped towards the awareness-building of its own people concerning this crime against humanity.

-The Catholicosate brought a major contribution to the development of social service.  Not only did it encourage social projects at the diocesan level, but it initiated important social projects, mainly in Lebanon, Syria, and Greece.  The orphanage in Jbeil (Bird's Nest), the Sanatorium, the popular housing project, the Old Peoples' Homes in Lebanon, Syria and Greece, are directly administered by the Catholicosate.

-The contribution of the Cilician Catholicosate to the flourishing of the cultural life in the Armenian Diaspora is significant, indeed.  The publishing house of the Catholicosate has each year published hundreds of titles.  An important number of publication funds have been established; book exhibits and fairs, a great number of conferences, debates, seminars, cultural meetings and concerts have been organized annually.  The construction of a Museum and the establishment of an important Library are eloquent manifestations of the growing interest of the Catholicosate in the promotion of the Armenian spiritual and cultural values.

-The Theological Seminary has played a pivotal role in the witness of the Catholicosate.  250 teachers, 130 married priests, 75 vartabeds, 30 bishops and archbishops, and the last four Catholicoi have graduated from the Seminary.

-Ecumenism has remained one of the main fields of the work of the Catholicosate.  Since the fifties, it's representatives, both clergy and lay people, have taken an active part in the meetings and conferences of the World Council of Churches.  The ecumenical engagement of the Catholicosate was given a more organized form after 1962, when it became a member of this world family of churches.  During the General Assembly held in Nairobi in 1975, Bishop Karekin Sarkissian (the actual Catholicos of Etchmiadzin) was elected a Vice-Moderator of the Central Committee (a position he held until 1983).  At the last General Assembly in Canberra in 1991, another member of the Catholicosate, Archbishop Aram Keshishian, was elected Moderator of the Central and Executive Committees (term ending in 1998), thus becoming the first Orthodox, the first Middle-Easterner and the youngest in age to reach the highest leadership position in the history of the World Council of Churches.

-The Catholicosate sent observers to the Second Vatican Council.  The visits of the Catholicoi to Popes, as well as joint declarations, meetings and consultations with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church greatly contributed to the development of brotherly relations and theological dialogue between the Armenian Church and the Roman Catholic Church on international, regional, and local levels.  The relations of the Catholicosate with the churches of the Middle-East have always been fraternal.  As one of the initiators of the ecumenical movement in the region, the Catholicosate took an active part in the foundation of the Middle East Council of Churches in 1974.  The Catholicosate has played a key role in promoting the theological dialogue between the two families of the Orthodox tradition: Eastern and Oriental.  It has had a significant part in the development of a more organized collaboration among the Oriental Orthodox Churches particularly after the meeting of the Heads of these Churches in Addis Abeba, in 1965.  The Catholicosate of Cilicia continues with growing impetus and interest its ecumenical relations with the Anglican Church and the other Churches of the Protestant tradition as well as with various ecumenical organizations.

-Having its headquarters in the Arab world, the Catholicosate of Cilicia has brought its full participation in the major events of this part of the world.  It has taken part in the struggle for independence of the Arab countries, mainly in Lebanon and Syria.  It has worked for a just, comprehensive and permanent solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

-Being a firm believer and defender of co-existence and dialogue, the Catholicosate of Cilicia has taken part in all efforts aiming at the strengthening of a shared and harmonious common life among religions, societies, cultures, and civilizations in the Middle East.


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*Information about the Catholicosate found on this page is quoted from "His Holiness Aram I Keshishian Catholicos of Cilicia Antelias - Lebanon", a publication of the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia, Antelias - Lebanon.


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