The National Ecclesiastical Assembly is the highest administrative body of the Armenian Church which primarily holds the Elections of the Catholicos of All Armenians.
Since the time of St. Gregory the Illuminator, the highest Executive Power of the Armenian Church bore the title of "Catholicos". After proclaiming Christianity as the state religion of the Armenian Nation in 301 AD, the right of becoming Catholicos was reserved only for the descendants of St. Gregory the Illuminator (from 301 to 439). This was mutually agreed upon by the high-ranking clergy, government officials and the King. In the later centuries, until 1932, the Catholicos was elected by the clergymen and laymen in contrast to other Churches, where only clergymen took part in the elections of the Patriarchs or the Pope.
Regulations accepted by the Armenian Church under the domination of Tsarist Russia
The Catholicos Elections have always been an issue of interest amongst the different powers that have ruled over the Armenian Nation. At different times, various authorities added specific and sometimes arbitrary requirements to the process, attempting to use it to their own advantage. This resulted in the opportunity for political powers to interfere in the Patriarchal Elections. This difficult situation of the Armenian Church was aggravated as a result of the continuing persecutions against the Armenian Church and the Nation.
The Armenian Church lived in rather severe conditions during the first quarter of the 19th century when disputes arose between Catholicoi Daniel I and David V.
Soon, Tsarist Russia conquered Eastern Armenia and within its boundaries, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin was located. During this time, the final decisions related to the Mother See required the approval of the Russian Tsar.
In order to regulate and stabilize the relationship between the Tsarist government and the Catholicosate of All Armenians, the Russian Empire found it necessary to make the duties and responsibilities of the Armenian Church more clear and distinct, according to canonical principles.
Taking this into consideration, Field Marshal Paskevich, General of the Caucasian battle-front who followed the tsarist policy of Russianization, took advantage of the situation within the Armenian Church and received special permission from the Russian Government to make plans and establish rules concerning this.
In 1928, under the order of the Tsarist government, Field Marshal Paskevich formed a Committee consisting of four members (Prince Behboutian, Archimandrites Serovbe, Zrpetian and Ochkin). He ordered the Committee to begin drafting the Armenian Church Regulations on January 08, 1830.
Upon completion of the draft, the regulation underwent some changes upon the review in St. Petersburg and was finally presented to Emperor Nicholas I. It was approved by the Emperor on March 11, 1836.
The Regulation entitled "About the Government of the Spiritual Affairs of the Armenian-Gregorian Church", represents the second chapter of the first part of the 11th volume of the Tsarist Codex. However, among the Armenians, it is known as "Polozhenia".
It is in this Regulation that for the first time the Armenian Church was recognized as "Gregorian".
According to the chapters of the Regulation, it reflected on the following issues.
1. Catholicosal power (article 1117-1138),
2. Synod of Bishops (article 1139 - 1160),
3. Diocesan Primates (article 1161 - 1182),
4. Consistories (article 1183 - 1193),
5. Clergy (article 1194 - 1205),
6. Theological schools (Seminaries) of the Church (article 1206 - 1211),
7. Church property (article 1212 - 1245).
The "Polozhenia" stopped functioning in the Armenian Church after the fall of the Tsarist Government.
Formation of the National Ecclesiastical Assembly
It is known that both clergy and lay participated in the Catholicos Elections of the Armenian Church and the Armenian Pontiff was always considered to be "nationally elected". Thus, in 1925, prompted by concerns of the health of Catholicos Gevork IV, the Supreme Spiritual Council attempted to replace the "Polozhenia", which had been banned by the newly formed Soviet Union, with new regulations for the Catholicosal Elections and other issues. On October 22, 1925, the new regulation draft, which was drawn up for holding the next Catholicosal elections, was approved by Catholicos Gevork V; and for the first time in history, it was called the "National Ecclesiastical Assembly", also referred to as NEA. The draft regulations of this Council, were reviewed version and approved during the third session of the National Ecclesiastical Assembly convened in 1945, and stipulated that the NEA had the following rights:
1. To elect Catholicos of All Armenians
2. To elect members of the Supreme Spiritual Council of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin.
3. To approve the National Ecclesiastical Constitution.
4. To discuss and make decisions concerning other canonical and general issues.
5. To regulate the Church economy.
The First National Ecclesiastical Assembly (1932)
The First National Ecclesiastical Assembly was convened on November 10, 1932. The Assembly was called for the purpose of holding Catholicos Elections in Armenia. 80 clergymen and laymen attended the Mother See to take part in it.
The first session of the Assembly was held to decide the order of holding the Catholicos Elections. The members presiding over the meeting (chairmen, secretaries), Review Board, and other committees necessary were elected. Then the order of elections was decided and agreed upon.
The elections were conducted during the next session. According to the accepted order, the celebration of the Divine Liturgy was offered in the Mother Cathedral. At the end of the service, the celebrant bishop asked the delegates to take an oath before the Altar of Descent asking that they participate in the elections conscientiously, impartially, with the call of duty, and without private interests. The Elections were carried out in the Mother Cathedral behind locked doors.
The results of the first ballot of the Catholicos Elections of 1932 were the following:
Archbishop Khoren - 51 votes
Archbishop Mattheus - 12 votes
Archbishop Mesrop - 10 votes
Archbishop Bagrat - 2 votes
Patriarch Torkom - 1vote
Archbishop Karekin - 1vote
Archbishop Gevork - 1 vote
A second ballot was taken and the results were:
Archbishop Khoren Mouradbekian - 60 votes,
Archbishop Mattheus Matthevosian - 19 votes.
Archbishop Khoren Mouradbekian was elected Catholicos of All Armenians for those difficult years for the Armenian Church. He was later murdered and is considered a martyred Catholicos.
The First NEA also considered several other issues which were placed on the agenda and discussed and acted upon. Those issues were:
1. The activity and the report of the Supreme Spiritual Council, the financial needs of the Mother See, and the draft of the Armenian Church Regulation;
2. The improvement (accomplishment) of the Armenian Church;
3. The election of the members of the Supreme Spiritual Council (beginning with the first session of the NEA the authority of the Supreme Spiritual Council members was revoked, and the Assembly elected new members. The new members of the Council began its term after the closing of the NEA);
4. A message of greeting and gratitude of the National Ecclesiastical Assembly was drafted and sent to the government of Armenia;
The First National Ecclesiastical Assembly found the existence of the Supreme Spiritual Council important and necessary. It was required that the Council consist of four clergymen and two lay members, presided over by the Catholicos of All Armenians. In case any of the members resigned or passed away the Council was granted the authority to elect a new member.
The Second National Ecclesiastical Assembly (1941)
The Second National Ecclesiastical Assembly was convened on the occasion of the Catholicosal Elections in 1941. The session lasted from April 10 to 13. Under the chairmanship of Locum Tenens Archbishop Gevork Chorekchian, 49 members participated in the meeting with the right of 77 votes.
A considerable number of the delegates were not present at the meeting because of the current war situation.
After electing the chairmen, secretaries and the members of the Review Board the meeting was considered official and the issues of the agenda were decided upon:
1. A review of the report of the Locum Tenens regarding the activities of the Supreme Spiritual Council from 1932-to 1940;
2. The financial report of Archbishop Arsen Ghltjian, a member of the Supreme Spiritual Council, for the budget estimate of 1941;
3. The elections of the Catholicos of All Armenians and the members of the Supreme Spiritual Council
After the three-day session, it was decided to postpone the Catholicosal Elections due to the absence of a majority of the bishops (out of the number of twelve bishops who needed to be present during the consecration and anointment of the Catholicos only three were present).
Archbishop Gevork Chorekchian was proclaimed as the elected Locum Tenens and additional members of the Supreme Spiritual Council were elected by the Assembly. Archbishop Arsen was elected the Grand Sacristan of the Mother See.
The Third National Ecclesiastical Assembly (1945)
In 1945, the Third National Ecclesiastical Assembly was convened to hold the Catholicos Elections. The first session of the meeting was opened on June 16, in the great hall of the Theological Seminary of Holy Etchmiadzin under the chairmanship of His Holiness Karekin I Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia. The Chairman, secretaries, and the members of the Review Board were elected during the first session. Following the elections and appointments, the Locum Tenens presented his four-year financial report. During the next sessions of the Assembly, the regulation of the National Ecclesiastical Assembly of 1925 was brought up for discussion. They were reviewed, amended, and put into implementation.
The Assembly ratified a motion by Stephanus Malkhasian; to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the historical event of returning the Catholicosate of All Armenians to Holy Etchmiadzin in 1441, by marking it as a national holiday, and eventually adding it to the church feasts by observing the celebration on the Feast of Ascension. The Assembly was very anxious about the financial situation of the Mother See and accepted the suggestion of His Holiness Karekin I Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia to contribute four percent of church profits to the Mother See as the "Illuminator's Fund".
On Friday, June 22, after midday, 113 delegates entered the Mother Cathedral after signing a special document to vote.
His Eminence Archbishop Gevork Chorekchian received 110 votes and became Gevork VI Catholicos of All Armenians.
The Fourth National Ecclesiastical Assembly (1955)
The first session of the fourth NEA was opened on September 29, 1955, and was presided over by Archbishop Vahan Kostanian. 140 delegates participated in the Assembly.
At the first session of the NEA, the Chairmen and the secretaries were elected. The second session was held for the purpose of electing the Catholicos of All Armenians.
The election results are as follows:
Bishop Vasken Paljian - 126 votes
Patriarch Karekin Khachatourian - 6 votes
Archbishop Vahan Kostanian - 2 votes
Archbishop Mambre Sirounian - 1 vote
Archbishop Mambre Galfayan - 1 vote
Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan - 1 vote
The Assembly elected Bishop Vasken Paljian as Vasken I Catholicos of All Armenians.
The third and the fourth sessions of the Assembly took place on October 5 and 7 under the chairmanship of the newly elected Catholicos.
During the last two sessions, other issues were discussed and the Assembly elected the new members of the Supreme Spiritual Council. Following these elections, it was decided to send letters of greetings to the local authorities, to the president of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union and to the government of Armenia for supporting the organization of the National Ecclesiastical Assembly. All of the issues on the agenda were discussed, and the session was declared closed with the final speech of the Supreme Patriarch.
The Fifth National Ecclesiastical Assembly (1962)
The fifth NEA was convened by Vazken I Catholicos of All Armenians.
On July 07, 1962, the Pontifical Encyclical declared the convening of the forthcoming NEA. By this encyclical His Holiness predetermined the issues to be discussed in the coming session:
1. The report of the seven-year activities of the Supreme Patriarch,
2. The report of the financial activity,
3. The issue of developing the Armenian Church Bylaw,
4. The issue of strengthening the unity of the Armenian Church,
5. The election of the Supreme Spiritual Council members and the Review Board,
6. The plans for future construction activities of the Mother See.
The opening of the NEA took place on Sunday, September 30.
During its four sessions, the Assembly discussed, debated, and voted on the agenda items.
The NEA closed on October 5, Friday, at 4.00 p.m., with the Blessings of the Supreme Patriarch.
The Sixth National Ecclesiastical Assembly (1995)
The sixth NEA was convened in 1995, to hold the Catholicos Elections. The first session of the Assembly took place on April 03. Out of 421 elected delegates, 398 were present at the opening session.
Upon the opening of the Assembly, improvements and clarifications were made to the Church Bylaws, the governance of the assembly was agreed upon. Following the procedural issues, the Chairmen and secretaries were elected.
During the second session, the candidates for Catholicos Elections were announced, and the following Committees were formed.
The Committee on Legal Affairs,
Following the appointment, His Beatitude Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, the Locum Tenens, presented his report on the six-month activities of his office. The NEA unanimously accepted the report of the Locum Tenens, with much gratitude and appreciation.
Following the presentation of the official report, the delegates moved to the Mother Cathedral where the Catholicos Elections were to take place by secret ballot.
The first voting took place at midday with the following results:
1. His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia - 111 votes
2. Archbishop Zaven Chinchinian - 9 votes
3. Bishop Aris Shirvanian - 3 votes
4. Bishop Kiuregh (Cyril) Gabikian - 2 votes
5. Archbishop Grigoris Buniatian - 37 votes
6. Archbishop Karekin Nersissian - 123 votes
7. Archbishop Tiran Kiureghian - 42 votes
8. Bishop Parkev Martirossian - 61 votes
The candidates who received the majority of votes were to take part in the second round of elections which showed the following results:
1. His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia - 186 votes
2. Archbishop Karekin Nersissian - 145 votes
3. Bishop Parkev Martirossian - 61 votes
According to the Church Bylaws the voting in the second round of elections should have taken place between His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, and Archbishop Karekin Nersissian, but the latter withdrew his candidature and congratulated His Holiness Karekin II on becoming the Catholicos of All Armenians.
The next day, on April 05, the fourth session of the NEA took place under the chairmanship of the Catholicos elect, His Holiness Karekin II.
During the last session of this NEA, after the speech of the Supreme Patriarch different delegates presented a number of issues to be considered, the most important of which are presented below.
1. To make improvements in the system of rites within the Church and change the language used to Modern Armenian. (Archbishop Khajak Parsamian)
2. To establish equality among the delegates during the Catholicos Elections irrespective of the size of the Diocese (the Diocese of Gougark)
3. To erect a monument on the grounds of the Mother See in memory of the Armenian clergy who fell victims to the tyranny of the Soviet Union. (Diocese of Gougark)
4. To Create an Advisory Committee (for making suggestions) (Archbishop Grigoris Bouniatian)
5. To cease the previous order of convening NEA and establish a new one by the Catholicos of All Armenians (Archbishop Grigoris Bouniatian)
6. To canonize all the victims of the Great Armenian Genocide of 1915 (Archbishop Aghan Paleozian)
7. To make improvements in the sphere of celibacy (Archbishop Mesrop Grigorian)
8. To raise the level of the Theological Seminary to an academic degree (Hakob Papazian, member of the Supreme Spiritual Council)
9. To return all properties which formerly belonged to the Church and had been expropriated to the Mother See (Senior Archimandrite Haikazoon Najarian)
10. To improve the economic condition of the Mother See Brotherhood (Senior Archimandrite Haikazoon Najarian)
11. To allow merited persons to become priests without taking the vow of celibacy and be permitted to marry in the future. (Dean Shahinian, Eastern Diocese of the USA)
12. To move the body of Catholicos Khoren I Mouradbekian of blessed memory from Gayane Church to the Mother Cathedral (Archbishop Housik Santourian)
13. In agreement with the Ministry of Education, to introduce Religious subjects in schools as compulsory subjects. (Svetlanna Petrossian, Araratian Pontifical Diocese)
14. To conduct marriages only in the Church (Svetlanna Petrossian, Araratian Pontifical Diocese)
The NEA was closed by the blessing and prayer of the Supreme Patriarch.
The Seventh National Ecclesiastical Assembly (1999)
The seventh NEA was convened in 1999. The first session took place on October 27, Wednesday. Out of 455 elected delegates, 451 were present at the meeting.
To open the sessions, His Eminence Archbishop Nerses Pozapalian, Locum Tenens of the Mother See, presented a four-year report. Then the chairman of the NEA Organizational Committee, His Eminence Archbishop Vatche Hovsepian presented the order of the meeting and the issues to be discussed.
The next step was the election of the chancellery which consists of the chairman, vice-chairman and secretaries.
The first order of business was to approve the list of the Catholicos candidates. As a result, two candidates remained; Archbishop Nerses Pozapalian and Archbishop Karekin Nersissian, while the other eligible candidates all withdrew their names.
At 14.30 p.m., all the deputies gathered in the Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin. Behind sealed doors, the elections were started. 450 deputies were present. Three committees were immediately formed: a) Review Board, b) Advisory Committee c) the committee for gratitude and appreciation.
Following these procedures, the delegates took an oath, and then the voting took place.
The results were as follows:
1. Archbishop Nerses Pozapalian - 163 votes
2. Archbishop Karekin Nersissian - 276 votes
3. void - 11 votes
Total - 450 votes
With a majority of the votes, Archbishop Karekin Nersissian was elected to serve as the Catholicos of All Armenians.
The second session was held on the next day of the Catholicosal Elections, on October 28, under the chairmanship of the Catholicos elect.
The brutal assassination that had taken place the previous day in the National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia had distressed all Armenians. These events had an impact on the further proceedings of the NEA. The second session of the meeting opened with the prayer of "Our Father" immediately after which the Supreme Patriarch prayed for the repose of the souls of those who had fallen victim to the massacre.
The only other issue that was discussed was the progress of the completion of the Church Bylaws was, after which in consideration of the national emergency His Holiness declared the NEA closed.
The meeting ended in the prayer led by the Supreme Patriarch.
The National Ecclesiastical Assembly per se, with its special guidelines, was put into implementation in the Armenian Church after being ratified by Catholicos Gevork V (On October 22, 1924).
While it is the highest administrative body of the Armenian Church. its main function and historic role is the realization of the Catholicos Elections in the Armenian Church, also providing a forum for suggestions and ideas regarding the improvement of the future activities of the Armenian Church.