The Armenian Apostolic Oriental Orthodox Church, is one of the original Oriental Orthodox churches. The Armenian Church recognizes the Ecumenical Councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), and Ephesus (431). The decisions and the dogmatic formulations of these councils are the basis of the theological thought of the Armenian Church which help her to protect herself against different sects and religious denominations which threatened her in the past as well as today.
Some councils which were recognized by the Latin and Byzantine Orthodox Churches as Ecumenical were denied according to the councils of the Armenian Church.
The councils which were not recognized by the Armenian Church as Ecumenical are the following: the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Second Council of Constantinople (553), the Third Council of Constantinople (681) and the Second Council of Nicaea (787).
In 451 the Council of Chalcedon, the Universal Church realized its first divergence because of the dangerous ideas put forward regarding the problem of the human and divine nature of Christ. Some oriental bishops did not accept the conclusions of the Chalcedonic Council and were thus separated from the West. Among the oriental Orthodox Church family are the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Assyrian, and Indian Malabar. In fact, Armenian Church did not participate in the Council of Chalcedon (451), because in 451 Armenia were having one of the important battles of his history, Battle of Vartanants. The Armenian church has been labeled monophysite because they rejected the decisions of this council, which condemned monophysitism.
The Western Church proceeded with its activities cutting off ties with the Oriental Orthodox Churches. But later on different inner divergences took place in the West. In 1054 the church was divided into the Roman Catholic and Byzantine Orthodox Sees after coming to an insoluble disagreement over the theological problem of the origin of the Holy Spirit.
The head of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church is Jesus Christ. The Supreme Spiritual and Administrative leader of the Armenian Church is His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, who is the worldwide spiritual leader of the Nation, for Armenians both in Armenia and dispersed throughout the world. He is Chief Shepherd and Pontiff to 9,000,000 Armenian faithful, he is the Pope for Armenians. The spiritual and administrative headquarters of the Armenian Church, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, located in the city of Vagharshapat, Republic of Armenia, was established in 301 AD and seventeen centuries later continues to guide the devoted nation and people on the luminous paths of fulfilling the primary mission of the Church – leading people to God. “Catholicos” is derived from the Greek word Katholikos, which means Universal. When the structure of the Armenian Church was created, the title was originally used to indicate the highest leader of the church. St. Gregory the Illuminator, the first Catholicos of All Armenians, was still subordinate to the See of Caesarea in Cappadocia and he chief bishops of Georgia and Albania, although dependent on the Catholicos of Armenia. Under King Pap and the Catholicos Hooszik I, Armenia asserted its independence of Caesarea. On the other hand the Armenian Catholic Church, which is an Eastern Rite church under the authority of the Pope in Rome.
St. Gregory the Illuminator is the Patron Saint of the Armenian Church. He is referred to as “St. Gregory the Illuminator,” or “Soorp Krikor Lousavorich” because he spread the light of Christ and converted the Armenian people to Christianity.
While Christianity was practiced in secret by a growing number of people in Armenia during the first and second centuries, it was St. Gregory (302-325) and King Trdat III (287-330) who in 301 A.D. officially proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of Armenia and thus made Armenia the first nation in world history to adopt Christianity as the state religion.
The story according to the Holy Tradition is as follows: As part of a planned plot, the Persian King Ardashir I, sent a trusted friend, Anak, to Armenia, to kill King Khosrov. During a hunting trip, Anak killed the King and ran away. The loyal men of the King pursued Anak, who was subsequently killed. The dying King gave orders to exterminate Anak’s family. Only one infant escaped this slaughter, and was rushed by his nurse to the city of Caesarea. This nurse happened to be a converted Christian. She brought up her charge in the Christian faith and gave him a Greek name, Gregory. St. Gregory became a devout Christian; married a Christian lady named Mariam, and had two children, Verthanes and Arsitakes.
When the Persian King heard that the King of Armenia was killed, he overran the country and established Persian rule in Armenia. Two of the children of King Khosrov were saved. The Princess Khosrovidought was taken to one of the inaccessible castles of the country, while Prince Trdat was taken to Rome. Trdat received a thorough Roman training. When he became a mature young man, able to rule a kingdom, he was sent by Rome to occupy Armenia, recover the throne of his father, and become a Roman ally.
As Trdat was returning to Armenia, most of the loyal Armenian feudal lords, who were in hiding, accompanied Trdat. St. Gregory also decided to go along with him. Nobody had any knowledge of his background or of his religious convictions. Trdat found out that St. Gregory was a well-educated, dependable and conscientious young man. He appointed him as his secretary.
After winning back Armenia, Trdat gave orders for a great and solemn celebration. During the festival, St. Gregory was ordered to lay wreaths before the statue of the goddess Mother Anahit, who was the most popular deity of the country. St. Gregory refused and confessed that he was a Christian. One of the king’s ministers decided to reveal St. Gregory’s secret. He told the King that St. Gregory was the son of Anak, the killer of his father King Khosrov. Trdat gave orders to torture St. Gregory. When St. Gregory stood fast, the King ordered him to be put to death by throwing him into a prison-pit (Khor Virab) in the town of Artashat to be starved to slow death.
Through divine intervention and with the assistance of someone in the Court, St. Gregory survived this terrible ordeal for thirteen years. It is thought the Princess Khosrovidought, the King’s sister, had found a way to feed St. Gregory in the dungeon.
During that very year the king issued two edicts: the first ordered to arrest all the Christians in Armenia confiscating their property, the second ordered to put to death those who hid Christians. These edicts show how dangerous was Christianity for the State and for heathen religion in the country.
This undertaking of persecution revealed the presence of a group of women, who were peacefully and secretly living in the capital city of Vagharshapat. The Holy Tradition claims that a group of Roman Christian virgins ran away to the East in order to escape the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletianus. After visiting Jerusalem and paying tribute to the holy places, the virgins came to Edessa, then crossed the frontiers of Armenia and settled down in vineyards not far from Vagharshapat. The leader of these pious women was Gayané. There was also among them a beautiful maiden called Hripsimé, who King Trdat wanted to have as his concubine. Hripsimé refused and resisted the King’s advances and finally fled from the Palace. This was too much for King Trdat and he mercilessly ordered to have all the women killed. They were 32 in number. Gayane, the mentor of the virgins and two others living in the southern part of the town and a sick virgin were tormented in the vineyards. The execution of the Hripsimian virgins took place in 300/301. This slaughter of innocent women and his frustration at being rejected threw the King into melancholy and finally made him insane. He could not attend the affairs of the state. In the 5th century people called this ‘pig’s illness’, which is why sculptors portray the king with a pig’s head.
His sister, Khosrovidukht, did everything to bring her brother back to his senses. Then one day in a dream, she saw St. Gregory coming out of the dungeon and healing her brother. She told the people at the Court of her dream, and revealed that he was alive. They sent men to the dungeon to bring him out. As he emerged, out came a man with a long beard, dirty clothes and darkened face. But his face was shining with a strange and strong light. He immediately gathered and buried the remains of the virgin-martyrs and thereafter preached the Gospel for a period of time and healed the King. Trdat III proclaimed Christianity as the state religion of Armenia after which the entire royal court was baptized. King Trdat was cured and became a new man. He said to St. Gregory: “Your God is my God, your religion is my religion.” From that moment until their death they remained faithful friends and worked together, each in his own way, for the establishment of the Kingdom of God in Armenia.
Today there are large Armenian Orthodox congregations in many middle-eastern countries outside Armenia. Of particular importance is the Armenian Apostolic Church of Iran (see also Christians in Iran) where Armenians are the largest Christian ethnic minority.
Other large Armenian Orthodox congregations are in the USA and in many Western European countries.