Although these churches have the same religious ceremonies and books,they are led by two different Catholicoses,who are the heads of different branches – similar to archbishops – of the same Armenian Apostolic Church.
Both claim to be the Armenian Apostolic Church,but since 1958 they officially have operated separately. The split occurred because of Soviet-era politics. Each says the other is also part of the church,but they don't cooperate,and at times members refused to allow their children to marry each other.
The churches are called the Etchmiadzin branch and the Cilicia branch by some,though neither church accepts those names officially,each calling itself Armenian Apostolic. The two names come from Armenian geographic areas. Cilicia is now part of Turkey.
About 1 million Armenians live in the U.S.,according to the Armenian Embassy. A third of them are in one church,and another third are in the other,according to these churches. The rest don't usually go to these churches.
The division of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the U.S. began after the Revolution of Bolsheviks in the former Soviet Union in 1917. One part of the Armenian Church claimed it want to be separate from the head,whose seat was in Etchmiadzin,Armenia. Armenia was then a Soviet republic,and some Armenians in the U.S. thought Moscow tried to use the Armenian Church to promote Communists' ideas outside the country.
In Armenian Apostolic Churches all over the U.S.,priests from the different churches sometimes didn't talk to each other.
“First time [after the division],Armenian families usually didn't let men from one church to marry ladies from another church. But then the situation improved,” said a priest from the Etchmiadzin branch's St. Mary Church in Washington,the Rev. Father Vertanes Kalayjian.
An Armenian man,Daron Bolat,29,who runs an Armenian youth organization,is not married but he said it wouldn't matter to him if his wife came from another church. He said 15 years ago it was sometimes a problem for local Armenians if a fiancée was from one church and a fiancé from the other.
“I know some stories when family didn't talk to their girl because she married to a boy from another church,” Bolat said.
All his family attends the Etchmiadzin branch's church in Washington. He has never been in the neighbor Cilicia branch's church,as he is “always on Sunday services in my church,” he said.
“I don't think they are bad. I don't have anything against them,” Bolat said.
Since the collapse of the USSR,there is no longer any suspicion about political alienation of the Etchmiadzin Church toward Communists. But the churches don't seem to be in a hurry to reunite.
An expert in political issues,Gevorg Melikyan,who is a vice-president of a nonprofit organization,”National Spiritual Security” in Yerevan,Armenia,said in an e-mail that politics is the main reason the churches haven't gotten back together.
The idea of a separation of two churches was promoted by the Armenian Revolutionary Party also known as Dashnaktsutun. This social-democratic party ruled Armenia for about a year in 1920s before the Soviet Bolsheviks occupied the country. Some of ARP's rulers immigrated to the U.S. and tried to struggle against Communists from here.
Members of this party once were not allowed to attend Etchmiadzin branch churches in U.S. It became one of the reasons ARP began to discourage people from attending these churches and for bringing the Cilicia church's representatives here from Lebanon. It became a scandal inside the Armenian community.
“Once,they came to one of our services and were pretending they were coming to the priest to kiss the cross. They came,surrounded the priest and killed him with knives during the service,” Kalayjian said.
He still believes ARP has an influence on the Cilicia Church.
“If there were not Dashnaks,we would unite,” he said.
Kalayjian represents a common point of view in the Armenian Community. Some of them think that ARP has an interest in a separate Cilicia Church to preserve its influence among Armenians.
ARP is one of the influential political parties in the Armenian Parliament today. But some experts say that ARP's main force is in the Armenian Diaspora,which includes about 6 million people around the world,according to the official statistics of Armenian government.
The executive director of the American National Committee of Armenia,which is the U.S. East Cost representative of ARP,Jirayr Beugekian said there was a stereotype of their interest of having Armenian churches apart.
“We have a long history in cooperating with the Cilicia Church. And with the Etchmiadzin Church,we began work not a long time ago. So sometimes people say we work more with Cilicia church,but for us they both are the same as long as there is no Soviet regime any more,” Beugekian said.
“There is no political solution to this problem. The religious Churches should agree with each other,” he said.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union,a new government of an independent Armenia tried to support the unification of two Armenian churches. But until now,these Churches have only official relations.
A priest of Cilicia branch's St. Cross Church a few blocks outside Washington in Maryland,the Rev. Father Sarkis Aktavoukian said he had some personal contacts with people from the other church. But he said that there were some people in the Etchmiadzin branch who offended him personally when they sometimes said that “we are a sect.”
“I know that our heads are talking about unification. But there are some details in their disputes that we don't know,” Aktavoukian said.
In the U.S.,two public commissions were formed to discuss possible reunion of churches. John Jerikyan of Washington participated in both. He said there was no possibility to settle this dispute as “some sides didn't want to unite.” He said that, besides background problems,some people have personal reasons for not uniting.
“It's a financial dispute. You lose control,you lose money if they are together,” Jerikyan said.
Jerikyan,67,is a salesman who attends Cilicia branch St. Cross Church. All his family is in this church. Jerikyan said a priest from another church is his good friend.
“I don't want it to be as it is now. Who wins? Nobody wins! I wish to have a united church to bring there my grandchildren,” Jerikyan said.
But Kalayjian,the priest from the neighboring Etchmiadzin branch's Church,said that the unification will not happen in a short period.
“There should be a very strong person to unite these two Churches. Now we don't have such a man,” he said.