Pashinyan defends police action against head of Armenian church

Pashinyan defends police action against head of Armenian church
The Armenian Apostolic Church retains a powerful position in Armenian society. / Robert Anderson/bne IntelliNews
By Ani Avetisyan May 30, 2024

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has defended police officers who tried to physically prevent Catholicos Garegin II, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, from visiting a national memorial on May 28.

Garegin, accompanied by senior clergy, had to break through three police cordons to lay flowers and pray at the Sardarapat memorial on the 106th anniversary of the proclamation of the first independent Armenian republic.

Pashinyan led an official ceremony at the memorial 30 minutes later, around 3 p.m. The ceremony was originally scheduled for the morning but was thought to have been cancelled after hundreds of anti-government protesters, led by Archbishop Bagrat Galstanyan, gathered at the memorial on the night of May 27. The prime minister arrived unexpectedly in the afternoon.

The unprecedented police action was strongly condemned by the Echmiadzin-based Mother See of the Church, dioceses in the diaspora, opposition leaders and other critics of the Armenian government.

The confrontation is part of a wider conflict between Pashinyan and the Armenian Apostolic Church, which has intensified since Armenia's defeat in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020. Senior clerics have joined the opposition in calling for Pashinyan's resignation, accusing him of territorial concessions to Azerbaijan and mismanagement that has led to existential threats to Armenia.

Pashinyan and his allies have boycotted major liturgies led by Garegin for the past three years, accusing the church of political interference. Church leaders say they cannot remain silent amid the perceived threats posed by Pashinyan's government.

Pashinyan claimed that the police officers at the memorial were trying to determine whether Garegin was there to continue "disruptive and provocative actions" initiated by his political supporters, or for some other purpose. He said they allowed Garegin through after being assured that his visit was purely ceremonial.

However, videos of the incident showed no such conversation between the officials and Garegin or his entourage. Yesayi Artenyan, head of the Mother See's press office, insisted that the police did not give any explanations or try to clarify anything, but simply blocked the way. He also mentioned that Garegin's office had informed Pashinyan's protocol service in advance about the Catholicos' visit, which was confirmed by the service. 

Meanwhile, Galstanyan described the police actions as "blasphemous" as he led hundreds of people in a rally outside the interior ministry building in Yerevan on Wednesday morning. The protesters also condemned instances of police brutality against participants in the ongoing protests led by Galstanyan to force Pashinyan to resign.

Galstanyan demanded that Interior Minister Vahe Ghazaryan come out and speak to him in public, but Ghazaryan only offered to meet him in his office, which Galstanyan refused. The demonstrators blocked the entrances to the ministry building for almost five hours before dispersing.

The Armenian Church officially backed Galstanyan and his supporters in early May when they marched from Tavush province to Yerevan to protest against Pashinyan's territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. On Monday, Garegin's office announced that during the protests Galstanyan has been relieved of his 'ecclesiastical and administrative' duties at his own request, although he retained his episcopal rank.

During a protest on 25 May, Galstanyan accused the Armenian authorities of bugging his hotel room in Yerevan. He claimed that drilling noises under his floor indicated the installation of a listening device. A young woman in the room below refused to open the door and called the police, who later escorted her out. Authorities denied any wrongdoing.