Khirmian Hayrik: A Revolutionary

Mkrtich Khirmian stands as a giant among the religious leaders of the Armenian nation.  His name is inseparable from our people’s struggle for national liberation. Khrimian was called Hayrik (diminutive for ‘Father’) by the Armenians, who saw in him a devoted shepherd who could guide his flock through the difficult terrain of Ottoman and Russian politics during the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

It was a decisive period in our people’s history, which saw increased oppression suffered by the Armenian population in these two empires and the emergence of an armed struggle that aimed to counter that oppression.

A revolutionary in a religious garb, Mkrtich Khrimian saw the moral and spiritual revival of the Armenians as a precondition for freedom and worked tirelessly to get the first Christian nation to embrace the proper interpretation of the religion of its forefathers.

That interpretation rejected subservience, condemned tyranny, and validated the rights of an oppressed populace to fight for justice and freedom. Indeed, that fight had been an integral part of Armenian history since the 4th century, and it served as a means of solidifying the Christian Armenian identity in the face of foreign cultural, religious, and political encroachments.

Khrimian Hayrik became the standard-bearer of the struggle to preserve the faith and the fundamental rights of his people, continuing the centuries-old efforts of the Armenian Church and its best clergymen to build a unique Christian Armenian identity centered on the national church and the traditional religious, moral, and family values espoused by Armenians.

The conversion of Armenia to Christianity in 301 A.D. was a ‘conscious decision,’ which indicated ‘a sense of distinctiveness that Armenians sought to maintain’ during this period, when religion was a key component of identity.

The construction of the Christian Armenian identity began immediately after the conversion of Armenia to Christianity by King Trdat III and St. Gregory the Illuminator. That process continued for the next seventeen centuries, and can be divided into four distinct phases: the formation phase (4th – 7th centuries); the phase of preservation and development (8th – 18th centuries); the weakening phase (19th – 20th centuries); and the phase of revival (end of the 20th century until now).

The first (formation) phase was signified by the conflict between the pagan and Christian value systems that resulted in the adoption of the motto ‘We Are a Christian Nation’ as a means of expressing the identity of the Armenians.

During the second (preservation and development) phase, religious and ethnic identities blended, and the struggle for Armenian identity became a struggle for Christian religion (and vice versa). After the conquest of the Armenian Highland by Muslim invaders (Arabs, Turks), the Armenian people were viewed as a religious community headed by the Church; the latter became the guarantor of the preservation of the Armenian identity under foreign rule.

That state of affairs prevailed until the age of Zartonk (19th century), when the role of the religion, the clergy, and the Church became subjects of debates among the nation’s intellectuals. During this period, the newly emerging intelligentsia challenged the supremacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church in national matters for the first time.

These processes led to the gradual decline in the role of the Church in the lives of the Armenians, though the institution continued to exert significant influence in political, social, and educational matters. At the same time, the Armenian people also began to transition from viewing themselves as primarily a religious group to embracing nationalism and reviving their ethnic identity.

Khrimian Hayrik’s famous ‘iron ladle’ speech was a reflection of this shift in the conscience of the Armenians, where the concept of a ‘religious [Christian] community’ was supplanted by the idea of a ‘nation.’ As Razmik Panossian points out, Khrimian’s message ‘reoriented Armenian nationalism toward a new and revolutionary direction… imbuing collective identity with an unprecedented sense of national purpose.’

After Khrimian, the Armenian Church went through a period of decline as the Western Armenian population was either destroyed or dispersed during the genocide and Eastern Armenia fell under Soviet occupation in its aftermath. With the collapse of the USSR, a new phase – that of revival – began in Armenia and parts of the Diaspora, with the Christian faith and the national Church once again becoming essential components of the Armenian identity.

These developments were occurring against the backdrop of the conquest and division of the Armenian Homeland. By the mid-16th century, the Ottoman Empire managed to gain control over most of Armenia through a series of successful military campaigns against the Safavids of Persia. The Ottoman rulers imposed the millet system of community organization on the empire’s non-Muslim subjects, including the Armenians.

The millet ‘was a self-contained religious entity, enjoying autonomy in its internal affairs,’ including the maintenance of ‘traditional customs, laws, and institutions… such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance.’ The members of the millet were also ‘permitted freedom of worship within certain bounds,’ though the system also institutionalized discrimination against non-Muslims in nearly every aspect of life.

As a result of this arrangement, the identity of a group in the Ottoman domains ‘was based on religion and was formally divorced from territory, as well as ethnicity and language.’ Since the ‘ethnicity and religion [of the Armenians] completely overlapped,’ the millet system placed the maintenance of the Armenian culture and identity under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Apostolic Church and gave the Armenians ‘a structure through which their collective identity as a (religious) ethnie could be maintained… until the ‘age of nationalism,’ thus ensuring ‘the survival of Armenians as a distinct group.’

By the end of the first quarter of the 19th century, the Persians had lost most of the remaining Armenian territories under their control to the Russian Empire. The Armenians welcomed Russian rule as relief from centuries of Persian and Turkish despotism and had high hopes for a bright future under the protection of their Christian patron to the North.

During the initial stages of Russian rule, the population transfers between the Russian empire, on one hand, and the Ottoman and Persian empires, on the other, brought tens of thousands of Armenians into their historic homeland. In addition, there was an administrative consolidation of Eastern Armenian lands within the borders of the Armenian oblast (1828 – 1840), which allowed for a degree of administrative autonomy.

The Polozhenie (Statute), issued by the Russian tsar, Nicholas I, in 1836, ‘regulated the powers and mechanisms of communal organization without too much interference from the state.’ It ‘recognized the autonomy of the Armenian Church and gave Armenians freedom of worship in their brand of Christianity.’

This arrangement lasted for about half a century, but the Russification policies of the tsar Alexander III and his son, Nicholas II during the late 19th – early 20th centuries exacerbated the conditions of the Armenian people and the national Church, triggering discontent and activating the revolutionary movement in Eastern Armenia.

As Mkrtich Khrimian prepared to enter the Armenian political scene, his country remained divided between two empires, both of which implemented policies that threatened the identity and the physical existence of the Armenian people.

Mkrtich Khrimian was born in the heart of Western Armenia, the city of Van, on April 4th (16th) 1820 in a family of textile-makers (costumiers). He lost his father at an early age, but his childhood was, for the most part, like that of his peers: Mkrtich chased the neighborhood kids in the family orchard in Aygestan and sometimes sang at the local church choir. Since there were no Armenian schools in Van in the 1820’s and 1830’s, the young man began his studies under the guidance of his uncle and mentor, the scholarly Khachatur, who had adopted Khrimian and took care of the young man’s education.

After Khachatur’s untimely death (1837), the heartbroken Mkrtich was taken to the monasteries on the Ktutz and Lim islands (Lake Van) to continue his education and even spent time studying grabar and Armenian history at the renowned religious center of Vaspurakan, the Varag Monastery. Dissatisfied with the quality of education offered at these institutions, however, Mkrtich soon returned to his native Van and joined the family business.

Having abandoned formal schooling, the curious young man did nonetheless continue to expand his horizons through travel. In the summer of 1842, Mkrtich, accompanied by three close friends, embarked on a journey through the Vaspurakan province and during the five-month trip, visited almost every one of its regions and had an opportunity to familiarize himself with the difficulties faced by the Western Armenian population living under the oppressive Ottoman rule. In the same year, Khrimian made his first pilgrimage to Holy Echmiadzin, the religious center of Armenia, which was to become his home five decades later.

These travels ultimately took Mkrtich to Constantinople, where he stayed from 1844 to 1846, establishing ties with several Western Armenian intellectuals and learning about the life of the Armenians in the Ottoman capital. During his time in Constantinople, Khrimian was ‘shocked at the indifference and disdain with which the Armenian elite and bourgeois classes… viewed their kinsmen in the provinces.’

Upon his return to Van (1846), Khrimian’s recently widowed mother and his older brother, Msrkhan, convinced Mkrtich to marry Mariam Sevikyan, a daughter of a well-respected local family. A year later (1847), the newly married Mkrtich, determined to escape military service, left his wife and newborn daughter and embarked on another round of travels, visiting various areas of Vaspurakan, Persia and Eastern Armenia (Ararart, Goghtan, Shirak).

During this trip, Khrimian acquainted himself with the mores and traditions of the populace in the major cultural and economic centers of Eastern Armenia (Ani, Alexandropol) and visited the abandoned graves of famous Armenian historical figures (Mashtos, Khorenatsi, Sahak Partev). His findings and observations from these trips inspired Khrimian’s first written work, a verse essay in grabar called Hravirak Araratean (Convoker to Ararat, 1847, published 1850), which conveyed Mkrtich’s passionate love for his country and described the tragic condition of his people in a simple, unembellished language. This was the beginning of Khrimian’s lifelong commitment to turning the attention of the Armenian elites and city dwellers to the pain and the sufferings of their brethren in the gavar through his powerful and incisive pen.

In 1848, Khrimian returned to Constantinople, having accepted a teaching position at the newly opened female academy. In this capacity, he had the opportunity to interact with the intellectual currents prevalent in the West and devote himself to studying the historical and literary works published by the Mkhitarians.

The late 1840’s were a period of revival in the intellectual milieu of Constantinople Armenians: a number of young men studying in Europe had witnessed the Revolutions of 1848 and had returned to the Ottoman capital ‘armed not just with a wealth of academic knowledge, but also ideas of freedom, independence, and national struggle.’ They all shared the same notion that led Khachatur Abovyan to defend the use of ashkharabar, inspired Raffi to write his novels, and encouraged Mkrtich Khrimian to commit himself to improving the educational opportunities available to his people.

That notion was that the liberation and the welfare of Armenia depended on the edification of its population. In Khrimian’s opinion, that edification also included imparting knowledge about the Holy Land and the explanation of the essence of the Scripture to the Armenian people. In the aftermath of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem (1850), Mkrtich published his second poem in verse, Hravirak Yerkirn Aveteats (Convoker to the Promised Land, 1851), which aimed to expand the spiritual horizons of his people and instill pride for their Christian heritage.

To be able to continue his efforts aimed at enlightening the Armenian people, Khrimian agreed to travel to Cilicia (1851) as the representative of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople. While in the region, he was supposed to study the conditions of local educational institutions and come up with recommendations regarding the steps necessary to improve them.

Having spent a year in Sis and other Cilician towns fulfilling this mission, Mkrtich returned to Constantinople to witness another problem: the destructive efforts of Catholic missionaries who were working to convert the local Armenians and to sow discord in their community. In response to these challengers, Khrimian published a pamphlet called Enddem Papakanutyan (In Opposition to Papacy), where he revealed the dangers contained in the activities of Catholic proselytizers and called upon the Armenians to retain religious unity.

At the beginning of 1854, after a seven-year absence, Mkrtich returned to his native Van, only to be met with devastating news: his mother, wife, and daughter had all passed away. This tragedy broke the ties that connected Khrimian with the secular world and led him to join the Armenian Apostolic Church. In February of 1854, Mkrtich was ordained Vardapet by the spiritual leader of Van, Gabriel Shiroyan, and began to preach his message of patriotism and enlightenment from the church pulpit.

Soon after, he returned to the Ottoman capital, and assumed the responsibilities of a pastor of the Surb Khach (Holy Cross) Church in Skyutar (Uskudar) district of Constantinople (beginning in 1855). Khrimian had come to believe that as a member of the clergy, he could widen the scope of his activities and make a greater impact on the lives of his people than as a private, secular citizen.

Of course, Mkrtich Khrimian was not an ordinary priest. His imposing stature, powerful message, and undeniable charisma captivated the Constantinople Armenian community. The son of Vaspurakan, Khrimian became the spokesperson of the gavar Armenians, calling upon his flock in Constantinople to pay attention to the needs of the pandukhts (exiles) and to put an end to the exodus of the population from the yerkir (courtry).

In order to awaken the consciousness of the populace, however, Khrimian needed more than a weekly sermon at the church. With the support of Constantinople’s Armenian merchants, he founded the periodical Artsvi Vaspurakan (The Eagle of Vaspurakan), which was published for an entire year (June 1855 – June 1856) and provided Khrimian with the ability to address key issues facing the Armenian people – the condition of their schools, the outmigration of the population from Western Armenia, and the loss of language and national identity by Ottoman Armenians – in its pages. Interestingly, Khrimian used the ashkharabar language understandable to the people to convey his message, which was both unusual and quite controversial for a publication associated with the Armenian Apostolic Church, a strict adherent and an ardent supporter of grabar. Khrimian did not intend to limit the publication of Artsvi to Constantinople alone and aimed to communicate his ideas to the Armenian population that continued to live in its historic homeland.

The name chosen for the periodical clearly shows that intent. True patriotism, Khrimian believed, was in ‘living in our ancestral lands [and] sharing the deprivations of our brothers.’ Motivated by this motto, the young priest stopped the publication of his periodical and in the fall of 1856, departed for his native Vaspurakan with the goal of opening a printing press on Akhtamar and turning the island into a center of learning akin to the Mkhitarian order in Venice (San Lazzaro Island).

With the help of his powerful supporters at the Patriarchate (Otyan and Ayvatyan families), Khrimian was soon appointed as the head of his former alma mater, the monastery of Varag (January, 1857), which was taken out of the jurisdiction of the spiritual leader of Vaspurakan. That situation immediately gave rise to a conflict between Mkrtich Khrimian and the local clergy, which also resisted his attempts to establish order at the monastery and repair its finances.

Despite these challenges, Khrimian continued his efforts aimed at bringing enlightenment to the local population. In March of 1857, he founded the Zharangavorats academy at Varag, which, despite being a religious institution, also emphasized learning of secular subjects such as languages, sciences, and trades. This school went on to produce a generation of intellectuals who played key roles in the political and cultural life of Western Armenians in the decades before the Genocide.

Khrimian also established a printing press at Varag and resumed the publication of Artsvi Vaspurakani (June, 1858). According to Khrimian, the periodical had a dual goal: besides enlightening the Armenian population, it was also called to promote political unity between Western and Eastern Armenians. From 1858 to 1864, Khrimian and his right hand man, Garegin Srvandztyants, wrote a series of articles about (Armenian) history, geography, morality, religion and culture, promoting the spiritual and national awakening of the Armenian population on both sides of the Russian-Ottoman border. In this endeavor, they were assisted by the renowned Armenian novelist, Raffi, who visited Varag in 1858 and defended Khrimian’s efforts from the criticisms of the conservative Armenian clergy. Raffi became a lifelong admirer of Khrimian and a key supporter of his educational efforts.

While describing the Armenian clergy, Raffi once famously said: ‘We have never had a prosperous clergy. We have only had a few revered churchmen.’ This statement rang as true during the second half of the 19th century as it did before and after Raffi. Mkrtich Khrimian was one of those ‘revered churchmen,’ who acted as a true visionary, even a revolutionary, within the framework of a largely reactionary institution, the Armenian Apostolic Church.

This revolutionary nature of Khrimian was seen in his views on the topics of education and national liberation. In his educational efforts, for example, Khrimian was an advocate of the concept of a ‘people’s school’ endorsed by Khachatur Abovyan. During Khrimian’s tenure at Varag, the students at Zharangavorats could be seen working in the monastery garden or at the printing press after classes were finished. In order to promote self-sufficiency and give impetus to the development of agriculture, Khrimian imported a modern plow from Europe and taught the local villagers how to use it.

While accepting the criticisms of the secular intelligentsia towards the Church, Khrimian maintained that the education of the Armenian youth should continue to be entrusted to the clergy, which must also be enlightened in order to be able to fulfill its mission.

He believed that the clergymen of his era had strayed from the true teachings of Jesus Christ and had to take the steps necessary to improve themselves and to prepare a new generation of priests who could educate the populace and raise its spirits. Khrimian not only accepted the problems that existed in the church – a rare occurrence among the Armenian clergy even today – but also saw their solutions as essential to the betterment of the lot of the Armenian people.

In his writings and sermons, Khrimian often addressed various negative phenomena that plagued the Armenian Church. He also used his public appearances to instill hope in his people and restore their pride in their Christian identity. During a trip to Eastern Armenia (November 1860 – July 1861), Khrimian was met with jubilant crowds of the faithful and the disapproving eyes of the Echmiadzin clergy, whom he consistently chastised for their excessive loyalty to the Russian tsar.

Though his fundraising efforts for the publication of Artsvi did not yield the desired results, Khrimian was able to better acquaint himself with the conditions of the people on the ground and gather useful materials, which helped elevate the quality of the publication beginning in 1861. After his return to Varag (Summer, 1861), Mkrtich Khrimian also participated in the commencement ceremony for the first graduating class of Zharangavorats (Fall, 1861), witnessing the fruits of his long labor – a new generation of activists who were ready to continue his work.

Though the Vaspurakan clergy was not thrilled about Khrimian’s efforts – they even organized a number of assassination attempts against him – the word of his activities had spread across the valleys of Mush and the mountains of Taron. The population of these areas had appealed to the National Council in Constantinople, requesting Khrimian’s appointment as the Primate (spiritual leader) of Taron (Mush), and in the Summer of 1862, the Council confirmed Mkrtich Khrimian in that capacity. According to the Council’s decision, Khrimian also retained control over Varag and assumed responsibility for the renowned St. Karapet monastery of Mush. Soon after this appointment (Fall 1862), the Eagle of Vaspurakan arrived in his new home in Taron.

Khrimian spent most of the next seven years (1862 – 1869) at St. Karapet monastery, continuing his work aimed at the edification of the youth and the spiritual awakening of the Armenians of Taron. His efforts at the new job in many ways mirrored his activities in Vaspurakan, which allowed him to turn Taron ‘into a flourishing center equipped with a school, a printing place, and a newspaper.’

Khrimian first brought the financial affairs of the monastery into order and soon opened a new Zharangavorats academy, appointing his mentee Garegin Srvandztyants as the headmaster of the school. In April of 1863, Khrimian launched a new periodical, Lratar Artsvik Tarono (The Messenger Eaglet of Taron), which voiced the grievances of the local population against the violations of the Ottoman authorities and criticized the Armenian clergymen who neglected their responsibilities.

During this period, Khrimian also began to pay special attention to the economic conditions of his flock. In his articles in Artsvik and the letters to government officials, Khrimian expressed his disagreement with the excessive taxation of the populace and pleaded with the authorities to implement the promised reforms, establishing order in the region and ensuring the security of the Armenians against the marauding Kurdish bands and the plundering Turkish officials.

His efforts in Taron were met with the same fierce resistance as his work in Vaspurakan. The opposing clergymen organized not one but two attempts on his life while the local Turkish officials leveled various accusations against Khrimian and used their connections in Constantinople to have the Armenian Patriarchate recall him to the capital for questioning (1865). In a protest against these persecutions, Khrimian tendered his resignation to the Patriarch, but the latter did not accept it and re-appointed him to head the monasteries of Varag and St. Karapet. All of these problems could not have had a positive impact on Khrimian’s work. Due to his long absences and the constant activities of his opponents, both the publication of the Artsvik and the operation of the school ultimately came to a halt.

Despite these challenges, Khrimian also continued his literary activities. In his Margarit Arkayutuyan Yerknkits (A Pearl from the Heavenly Paradise, 1866) and subsequent works such as Khachi Tchar (Discourse on the Cross, 1876), Khrimian discussed the qualities that had to be cultivated by responsible clergymen and gave examples from the life and the conduct of Jesus Christ as behavior worthy of a servant of God. He extolled Christ’s message of love towards fellow humans, but maintained that ‘God had also stipulated equality [as a means of] coexistence’ and comradery between people.

Thus, resisting any kind of oppression was, according to Khrimian, fully in line with every human being’s God-given right to achieve equality and social justice. This message was quite different from the stance of many Armenian clergymen, who mostly preached subservience to the oppressors (Turks, Kurds) and blamed the misfortunes that had befallen the Armenians on their lack of commitment to the Christian religion. It was this healing message and Khrimian’s tireless work on behalf of the forgotten Armenian peasantry that earned him the love of the people of Taron and the honorific title of Hayrik.

In the Fall of 1868, Khrimian embarked on his third trip to Eastern Armenia. This time, he was headed to Echmiadzin in order to be ordained a bishop by the Catholicos of All Armenians, Gevorg IV of Constantinople., On his return journey, Khrimian passed through Karin – the administrative center of the Erzrum province – and relayed the grievances of the Armenian population to the governor (January, 1869). He demanded the restoration of the former rights of the Armenian Church and asked to relieve the monastic properties from taxation.

These pleas fell on deaf ears, and having spent the winter in Karin, Khrimian went back to Taron (June 1869) and re-launched a new phase of reforms at St. Karapet. Two months after his return, bishop Mkrtich received the news that the Armenian National Council in the Ottoman capital had unanimously elected him to be the next Patriarch of Constantinople (September 4th, 1869). Having barely settled at St. Karapet, Khrimian started another journey, this time to the Ottoman capital (October 3rd, 1869), in order to assume the seat of the Patriarch and become the head of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. A new phase in his life, full of troubles and tribulations, was about to begin.

Khrimian’s brief tenure as Patriarch (September 4th, 1869 – August 3rd, 1873) was signified by permanent disagreements with the Constantinople establishment represented in the National Council (Assembly), the governing body of the Armenian community of the Ottoman Empire established by the Constitution of 1863.

The Constitution itself was the result of the reform movement in the Ottoman state and the internal power struggle in the Armenian community during the 1850’s and 1860’s. The document was based on the Ottoman Hati-Humayoun of 1856, which was ‘the first enunciation of the principle of representative government for the subject communities of Turkey,’ and it was promulgated after a prolonged  conflict between the sarrafs (the merchant class of Constantinople) and the traditional Armenian aristocracy, the salaried magnates, who occupied various positions at the Porte and wielded political influence with the sultan. The result of that struggle was that the ‘old aristocracy’ lost its bid to power and yielded its positions to the new merchant elites, not without the interference of the Ottoman state on the side of the sarrafs.

These changes led to the emergence of two new centers of power in the National Council, the Ecclesiastical and the Civil Councils, which were responsible for the spiritual and temporal affairs of the community, respectively. There were also multiple committees formed under each council (Budget, Justice, Finance, etc.) called to supervise the day-to-day business of Ottoman Armenians.

Though the Patriarch was still in charge of both Councils, his powers were diminished under this new arrangement. Naturally, the traditional aristocracy and the candidates for the Patriarchal throne, including Khrimian, had reservations about this power-sharing deal.

The situation was complicated by the fact that there was no vigilant citizenry that could ensure the democratic nature of the operations of the Council: most of the Armenian population at the time was not sufficiently enlightened about the advantages of a constitutional system to fully appreciate its implications. Khrimian described the situation in the following manner: ‘since the people have not a sense of their rights, since they do not apprehend the meaning of law, neither is it necessary for their officials to submit to any constitution.’  It seems that this point of view was the prevalent one both among the clergy and the community’s conservative leadership.

Naturally, disagreements between the new Patriarch and the National Council began to emerge immediately upon Khrimian’s arrival in Constantinople (February 1869). The Council members demanded that the Patriarch promise to follow the letter of the Constitution in his oath and basically become an executive in the hands of the National Council.

Khrimian diplomatically evaded making such a commitment and instead vowed to follow the spirit of the Constitution while maintaining his autonomy as the spiritual leader of Ottoman Armenian. The bigger disagreement between Khrimian and the old guard in the capital revolved around the representation of the gavar Armenians in the National Council: out of its 140 members, fewer than 40 were representatives from Western Armenia, where the vast majority of Ottoman Armenians lived.

Thus, Constantinople Armenians held disproportionate influence in the Council, which, in turn, was mainly preoccupied with discussions regarding narrow issues that interested the powerful local elites and the coastal communities while ignoring the abysmal state of the population in Western Armenia and Cilicia. Since Khrimian was the spokesperson of the peasantry and the Armenian population in the yerkir, a conflict between the new Patriarch and the old Constantinople elites was unavoidable.

Since the beginning of his tenure as Patriarch, the Hayrik demanded that the Constitution be revised, some of its outdated provisions be discarded, and the representation rights of the population of the yerkir be restored. A committee was set up to look into these matters (1870), and another one was established to specifically address the issues in the gavar.

These committees in Constantinople also prepared multiple reports on these issues, some of which were even submitted to the Sublime Porte (April, 1872), only to be ignored by the government. In the meantime, Hayrik’s opponents began a campaign against him in the local press, accusing him of appropriating the funds raised to pay off the debt of the Patriarchate.

The National Council purposefully delayed the discussion of the issues that were being championed by Khrimian, including the revisions to the Constitution and the suggestions on improving the lot of the Ottoman Armenian population. Despite the popular support of these initiatives, the Hayrik was unable to advance his agenda in the Council dominated by the local elites.

One specific idea advocated by Khrimian was that the Armenian population should be convinced to join the Ottoman military and start bearing arms in order to achieve an equal footing with the Kurds and the Turks, who would be less tempted to attack Armenian villages if the men living there were armed. The Hayrik also suggested creating the institution of ‘traveling priests’ in Constantinople, who would then be sent to Western Armenia to work with the local population to help them resist the Islamization attempts by the local authorities and address the socio-economic issues facing the peasantry.

These ideas were either outright rejected by the Council members or forgotten during interminable discussions in committees. Convinced of the futility of further efforts to change the status quo, Khrimian sent a resignation letter to the deputies on July 31, 1873. During the subsequent discussion of that issue (August 3, 1873), the Haryik read his Khosk Hrazharakan (Resignation Speech), where he criticized the obstructionism of the National Council, rejected the accusations leveled against him, and lamented the abysmal state of the Armenian Church, which failed to provide proper leadership to the nation at the time when the Armenian people were facing existential issues in their ancestral lands. By the end of August, Khrimian’s resignation was accepted by both the National Council and the Sublime Porte, which were only happy to rid themselves of the rabble-rousing Patriarch from Vaspurakan.

The period following Khrimian’s resignation was marked by heightened hopes for the future of the Ottoman Empire among the country’s Muslim and Christian communities alike. The ascension to the throne of sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876 – 1909) signified a brief period of reforms aimed at preserving the multiethnic empire. Under pressure from his grand vizier, Midhat Pasha, the new sultan even adopted a Constitution (December, 1876), which created a bicameral Parliament and declared equality of all Ottoman citizens irrespective of religion.

The proclamation of the Constitution was the apogee of the reform movement that had emerged in the Ottoman Empire with the announcement of the Edict of Gulhane (1839) and came to be known as the Tanzimat era (1839 – 1876). Drafted by an Armenian writer Grigor Otyan, the Constitution was met with fierce resistance of the Muslim population, which was opposed to the loss of superiority over the Christian subjects of the empire.

Ultimately, it was suspended by sultan Abdul Hamid II in the aftermath of his Empire’s loss in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 – 1878. Yet another attempt to cure the ‘sick man of Europe’ failed due to the intransigence of the Muslim population, the lack of genuine desire for reforms in the upper echelons of power, and the vicious plans of Abdul Hamid to drown the aspirations of the empire’s minorities, including the Armenians, in a sea of blood.

Initially, Khrimian shared some of the optimism related to the changes happening in the Ottoman state and used his powerful pen to bring attention to the issues facing the Empire and its Armenians subjects. The year 1876 was particularly productive in that respect. In his work Zhamanak yev Khorhurd Yur (The Times and Their Significance, 1876), Khrimian described his hopes and aspirations for a better future with the announcement of the new Constitution, and demanded the implementation of the reforms promised by Ottoman authorities since the first half of the 19th century.

He also talked about the plight of the working class people and called upon the populace to fight for its rights and its freedom. In his then-unpublished work, Tsragir Barenorogmants (Reforms Program, published 1909), the Hayrik blamed the inaction of the government and its local representatives for the illegal attacks carried out by the Kurdish tribes against the Armenian peasantry.

He advanced the point of view that using the Kurds against the Armenians did not serve the interests of the Ottoman state, and that an alternative way of satisfying their demands would be to give the Kurds ‘their own land and their own country.’ That country would be under the supervision of regular Turkish Armies in order to tame the Kurds’ barbaric behavior and ensure harmonious interethnic relations in the Armenian Highland.

Khrimian also turned his attention to the internal problems facing the Armenian population in the Ottoman domain. His essay Drakhti Entanik (A Family from Paradise, 1876), also penned in Constantinople, emphasized the need for the enforcement of traditional family values as a means of preserving the identity and the physical continuity of a nation deprived of its statehood.

Khrimian stated that a family is like a country of its own, and the progress and the strength of a people depend on the strength of the moral values cultivated in the family. The former Patriarch advocated giving young people, particularly the girls, the freedom in choosing their partner, arguing that ‘the bride is not a servant, but a friend to her groom,’ and thus should also have a say in the selection process.

The unconventional priest that he was, Khrimian also condemned the church rules against allowing people to remarry, criticized the exorbitant expenses associated with weddings that bankrupted the newly-formed families, and supported extending educational opportunities to women in order to ensure the proper edification of the future generations of Armenian children by their mothers.

The impetus for Hayrik’s next work, Vanguyzh (Grievous News from Van, January 1877) came from the government-organized campaign aimed at destroying the economic power of Armenian merchants of Vaspurakan. On the night of December 1, 1876, Turkish and Kurdish bands attacked the market in Van, burning more than 500 shops that belonged to the Armenians.

Khrimian took up his pen once again to criticize the Ottoman authorities for not showing any appreciation for the loyalty of the Armenians to the Empire and to encourage the Armenian population to stand up and defend its honor. The proceeds from the sales of Vanguyzh were donated to the orphans of Van. The events in Vaspurakan triggered a change in Khrimian’s views, and he became an outspoken champion of his people’s right to defend themselves even if it meant entering into a direct conflict with Ottoman authorities.

The outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 – 1878 marked the end of the reform era in the Ottoman Empire and presented an opportunity for sultan Abdul-Hamid to destroy the Armenian people’s quest for freedom with the hands of the Kurdish tribes. This dire situation motivated Khrimian to further refine his views on national liberation, which he expressed in his next work, Hayguyzh (Grievous News about Armenians, 1877).

Distressed by the massacres of Armenians in Alashkert and Bagrevand by sheikh Jalaleddin – a topic that also inspired one of Raffi’s best novels – Khrimian lamented the anti-Armenian policies of the sultan and called upon the Armenian people to take up arms. At the same time, the Hayrik criticized the unprincipled policies of the European powers and condemned the submissiveness of the Armenians, telling his flock that ‘as long as you live without weapons and… without a shield, you will be destroyed… by the nomadic Kurds.’ Together, these two works (Vanguyzh and Hayguyzh) were instrumental in delineating a program for the national liberation struggle, and the powerful language that Khrimian used in them earned the writer the title Khorenatsi of the 19th Century.

The loss suffered by the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 – 1878 triggered new hopes in the Armenian population for reforms in the Armenian vilayets (provinces) that would be carried out under pressure from the victorious ally of the Armenians, the Russian Empire. The triumph on the battlefield, however, did not turn into a diplomatic victory for the Russians, and they were soon forced to renegotiate the Treaty of San Stefano (March 2, 1878), which extracted major concessions from the Ottomans and entrusted the supervision of the reforms in Western Armenia to the Russian tsar.

A congress was called in Berlin (June – July, 1878) to draft a new agreement, and the Armenian Patriarch, Nerses Varzhapetyan sent a delegation headed by Khrimian to the German capital to represent the Armenian demands to the Great Powers. Khrimian was selected as the spokesperson for the Ottoman Armenians since he was best acquainted with the conditions prevalent in Western Armenia and enjoyed great respect on both sides of the Russo-Turkish border.

Unfortunately, Khrimian’s familiarity with European diplomacy was significantly less than his awareness of the situation in the yerkir, and his dreams of autonomy for Western Armenia were met with the realities of Great Power politics.

The conflicting interests of Russia, Britain, and Prussia, combined with the strong pressure exercised by the Ottoman delegation on the participants of the Congress, led to the watering down of the reforms promised to the Armenians by Article 16 of the Treaty of San Stefano and the ultimate failure to create enforcement mechanisms for the reforms stipulated in Article 61 of the newly-signed Treaty of Berlin (July 13, 1878).

The thoroughly disappointed Khrimian returned to Constantinople convinced that reliance on foreign powers is futile and that the future of the Armenian people will depend on their ability to create and use their own ‘iron ladle.’ Khrimian expressed the demands of Armenians ‘based on nationalist principles and secured … a place in the radicalization of Armenian thinking.’ Upon return to Constantinople, Khrimian relayed this message to his flock gathered at the Armenian Church in Kum Kapu:

Fellow Armenians, you have certainly well understood what weapons could have accomplished and what they do accomplish! Thus, my dear and blessed Armenians, hailing from the provinces, when you return to the Homeland, as a gift to your friends and family, take them each a weapon. Buy weapons upon weapons – and then buy more. Before all else, place the hope of your liberation upon yourself. Give your mind and arms strength – a person must depend on himself in order to be saved.

These words were soon adopted by the national revolutionary movement, which was ignited in the aftermath of the Congress of Berlin with the goal of attaining the just aspirations of the Armenian people. An ARF activist and historian, Abraham Gyulkhandanyan described the developments during the late 1870’s – early 1880’s in the following manner:

This was an interesting and productive time. The Armenians had finally awaken from the deadly dream and had begun to aspire to overthrow the centuries-old servitude, thus laying the foundations of a new and a free existence. The public figures who had emerged in this period aimed to provide a certain direction to the Armenian political thought. From this point of view, the 1880’s were a turning point in our history.

Khrimian Hayrik was destined to play a key role in that history. While the educated Armenian youth spearheaded the emergence of multiple secret societies on both sides of the Russo-Turkish border, Khrimian and some of the more progressive members of the National Council initiated the depi yerkir movement. Their goal was to settle patriotic clergymen, intellectuals, and merchants in the Armenian vilayets and help improve the living conditions of the population.

That was to be accomplished by rebuilding the local infrastructure, starting schools and businesses, and helping the peasantry protect its land and its rights from the encroachments of the local Turks and the nomadic Kurds. This movement was a reaction to the deliberate policies of the Ottoman authorities aimed at preventing any positive (and potentially dangerous) reforms from taking place in the Armenian Highlands under pressure from the Europeans.

As always, Khrimian was at the center of these events. Fully committed to the goals of the depi yerkir movement, the Hayrik soon returned to Van (November, 1879), and was elected as the spiritual leader of Vaspurakan (December, 1879). After a 14-year long absence, Mkrtich Khrimian was back in his birthplace with a mission to ameliorate the sufferings of his people that resulted from the violence perpetrated by the retreating Turkish armies and the famine that had stricken Western Armenia in the aftermath of the war.

During his time in Vaspurakan (1879 – 1885), Khrimian established close ties with the emerging secret revolutionary organizations. Sev Khach (Black Cross) of Van and Pashtpan Hayrenyats (Defender of the Homeland) of Karin. He played an important role in coordinating their activities and shielding them from the authorities. Khrimian shared the same goals as these societies: to unite the Armenian people, to promote national awakening, and to prepare the people for self-defense.

During the first two years in Van, the Hayrik also focused on bringing relief to the population affected by famine. He coordinated fundraising efforts among Eastern Armenians to help their brethren across the border and provided cover for the activists from Sev Khach, who organized raids on state storage facilities and distributed the grain taken from the government to the populace.

When the famine began to subside, Khrimian turned his attention to his main mission: the edification of the local population. In November of 1880, he founded an agronomy school in Varag – the first of its kind in Armenia – dedicated to the promotion of agriculture and prevention of future food shortages., Despite financial challenges, Khrimian kept the school open until October of 1883, even paying some of its expenses from his monthly Patriarchal pension.

At the same time, the Hayrik consistently urged the European powers to force the sultan to implement the reforms promised by the Congress of Berlin. Disappointed by the pro-Turkish policies of England, Khrimian appealed to Russia, writing letters to the tsar and urging him to come to the help of Christian Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. The local Armenian elites, however, did not have the same courage as the Hayrik to vocally insist on the implementation of reforms.

Fearful of the authorities, many of them agreed to the government’s demands to write letters to Constantinople, thanking the sultan for the ‘care’ he had shown towards his Armenian subjects and rejecting calls for foreign intervention. This infuriated a group of young Armenians from Van, who attacked a gathering of local Armenian elites and beat up several deputies. These events led to Khrimian’s resignation as the spiritual leader of Vaspurakan (1883) and his retirement to Varag Monastery.

The Turkish authorities were not satisfied with Khrimian’s resignation alone and aimed to send him as far away from Vaspurakan as possible in order to weaken the local secret societies and break the spirit of the population. As long as the Hayrik remained in the yerkir, he was going to rally the populace around him, and that was not something the sultan and his government welcomed. In December of 1884, Khrimian was officially asked to leave Varag and to report to the authorities in Constantinople.

Appealing to his old age and poor health, the Hayrik was able to delay his trip until spring and took the intervening months to preach sermons in Varag and Van, where he encouraged his flock to remain strong in the face of future adversities. By the time Khrimian arrived in Constantinople (May 1885), renowned Armenian public figures and intellectuals (Raffi, Tserents) were campaigning for his selection as the next Catholicos of All Armenians.

The previous head of the Armenian Church, Gevorg IV, had passed away in 1882, and the throne in Echmiadzin had remained vacant since then. However, due to the pressure from the Russian authorities, a loyal tsarist, Makar of Teghut (1885 – 1891) was chosen to lead the Armenian Church while Khrimian remained under government supervision in the Ottoman capital. In order to prevent a schism between Eastern and Western Armenians, Khrimian accepted the results of this ‘election’ and assumed the position of an unofficial leader of the Armenians in Constantinople.

The Ottoman capital was home to many Armenian exiles, who were removed from the yerkir in order to prevent agitations among the local population. Due to the respect and the affection that he enjoyed, Khrimian became the head of this ‘exile community’ and began to coordinate the efforts of these individuals as well as the work of the newly-emerging revolutionary organizations.

He was soon elected as the head of the Committee on Ecclesiastical Affairs in the National Council (June 1886) and concurrently became a deputy of the said Council (August 1886). In the summer of 1888, then Patriarch Harutyun Vehapetyan resigned his position to become the head of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, leaving behind a vacant seat coveted by Khrimian, who wanted another chance to implement the changes that were so passionately resisted by the local elites during his ‘first term’ (1869 – 1873).

However, just like the Russian government three years earlier, the Ottoman authorities had other plans, and those plans did not include returning the recalcitrant Eagle of Vaspurakan into the Patriarchal seat. Under pressure from the Sublime Porte, a government loyalist Khoren Ashegyan was elected as the spiritual leader of Ottoman Armenians in the Fall of 1888, and the Patriarchate once again became a pliant tool in the hands of Ottoman authorities.

Despite this disappointment, Khrimian continued his work in Constantinople, advocating enlightenment of the priests and advising the revolutionaries against taking unreasonable risks until he was exiled to Jerusalem by the sultan’s government in the Fall of 1890, in the aftermath of the Kum Kapu demonstrations organized by the Hunchak party.

Khrimian’s exile to Jerusalem took place in the year when the Armenian people were celebrating his 70th birthday. On that occasion, the periodical Murtch (Hammer) published an editorial, calling Khrimian ‘the most authoritative, the most respectable, the most trusted champion of [national] ideology.’ Even in exile, the Hayrik continued his efforts aimed at the betterment of the conditions of his people.

Confined to the Monastery of St. Hakob (St. James), Khrimian completed his most important work dedicated to the peasants of Armenia, Papik u Tornik (Grandfather and Grandchild, published in 1894). Written in Khachatur Abovyan’s folksy style, the book – which remains an important example of gavar (provincial) literature – was aimed at bringing the attention of city dwellers to the lives and the concerns of the people in the yerkir. In Papik u Tornik, Khrimian emphasized the importance of hard work and education, including the edification of women, as a means of improving the conditions of Armenian families and consequently, the state of the nation.

The main message relayed by the grandfather (Khrimian) to his grandchild (the Armenian people), however, was to love his ancestral land and to continue to live on it despite the challenges and obstacles that may arise – a message that remains relevant even today. Staying true to his mission of fostering unity between the two segments of the Armenian people, Khrimian wrote his essays (including Papik u Tornik) in a language that could be easily understood by both Eastern and Western Armenian speakers. It was in Jerusalem that Khrimian found out about his unanimous election as the Catholicos of All Armenians (May 1892).

It was very symbolic that all 72 deputies – laymen and clergymen chosen to select the next head of the Armenian Church – had cast their ballots for the 72-year old Khrimian. The man who had devoted his entire life to serving the Armenian people and the Armenian Apostolic Church became the spiritual leader of the nation. Thus began a new phase in Khrimian’s life and a new chapter in the history of his people defined by intense struggles, terrible tragedies, and exhilarating triumphs.

Throughout the Middle Ages, and particularly since the collapse of the Kingdom of Cilicia in 1375, the Armenian Apostolic Church had ceased serving exclusively as a religious institution and had once again assumed responsibilities related to the organization of the political, national, and cultural lives of the Armenian people.

As a result of that role, the Church had become the carrier of national values and the vanguard of national ideology, helping secure the continuity of the Armenian people and the preservation of the Christian Armenian identity through centuries of foreign domination. At the same time, the Armenian Apostolic Church promoted spiritual and ideological unity of its flock, which expedited the process of formation and unification of the Armenian nation.

Khrimian Hayrik continued this legacy, but went even further by becoming an active proponent of the national liberation ideology. Breaking with the conservatism of his predecessors, Khrimian became the ‘single most important nineteenth century figure to have entered Armenian consciousness as the bearer of the radical message of national liberation.’ As Catholicos, Mkrtich Khrimian opened the doors of the Church to the Armenian revolutionary movement, helping radicalize the church in the process.

Khrimian’s ascension to the throne of the Catholicos (1892) was marked by high hopes for the implementation of a limited national agenda aimed at preserving the physical existence of the Armenian people in the Ottoman Empire and defending their basic rights in the Russian Empire. Neither one of those empires was enthused about the election of the nationalist priest to the seat of the Catholics.

The Ottoman sultan even refused to allow Khrimian to leave Jerusalem, and it took over a year of Russian diplomatic efforts to obtain permission (May 1893) for the newly-elected Catholicos to depart for Echmiadzin. Even then, Abdul Hamid, concerned about possible agitations among Turkish Armenians at the sight of their charismatic former Patriarch, insisted that Khrimian should not step foot into the Ottoman domain during his passage to Echmiadzin.

As a result, the Hayrik had to travel via Jaffa, Alexandria, Venice, Trieste, Odessa, Batumi and Tiflis (and a few other cities) in order to reach the Mother See. His trip began on August 3rd, 1893, soon after the Russian tsar confirmed Khrimian’s election (June 1893). The new Hayrapet arrived in Echmiadzin on September 12th, 1893. Two weeks later, on September 26th, 1893, 17 months after his election (May 1892), Mkrtich Khrimian was inaugurated as the 125th Catholicos of All Armenians. 

The years that he spent as the supreme spiritual and political leader of his people were rife with challenges for the Armenians, which included the famines of 1893 – 1894 and 1907, the Hamidian massacres in the Ottoman Empire (1894 – 1896), the Russification policies of tsar Nicholas II, and the Armeno-Tatar clashes in the Caucasus orchestrated by the Russian government (1904 – 1905). During these difficult times, the elderly Catholicos provided steady leadership to his flock that was being assailed on all fronts, and earned the love and the admiration of the Armenian people for his dedication to the cause of national liberation.

Since the start of his tenure, the challenges facing the new Catholicos were formidable. The famine of 1893 – 1894 and the massacres of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (1894 – 1896) organized by sultan Abdul Hamid II in response to demands for reforms brought thousands of refugees into Russian Armenia and necessitated immediate actions aimed at ameliorating their sufferings.

The Catholicos issued an appeal to worldwide Armenians (March 28, 1894), where he asked for help in meeting the basic needs of the refugees and called upon the Western Armenian population to return to their ancestral homeland. Since the Russian and Ottoman Empires enjoyed rather close relations during this time, the tsarist government actively opposed Khrimian’s efforts directed at helping the Ottoman Armenians.

Defying both empires, the Catholicos not only continued to raise funds for the refugees, but also championed the right of the Armenians to protect themselves against Turkish and Kurdish attacks. The official periodical of the Mother See, the journal Ararat provided accounts of the resistance movements launched by the Armenian population in Cilicia and Western Armenia in response to the Hamidian massacres and extoled the spirit of the fighters, who sacrificed themselves for the sake of the country and the Church.

Until the imposition of government censorship in September of 1897, the journal continued to shed light on the conditions of Ottoman Armenians, motivating the population by examples of courage and martyrdom demonstrated by the participants of self-defense movements in Sasun, Zeytun, and Van. The Hamidian massacres took the lives of 300,000 Armenians; another 100,000 were forcefully Islamized, and 100,000 more fled the Ottoman Empire. The fewest losses were registered in those areas where the Armenians demonstrated armed resistance to the Turkish and Kurdish gangs, vindicating the message of self-defense preached by the Hayrik.

While the Ottoman sultan massacred his Armenian subjects, the Russian tsar aimed to establish tight control over Armenian religious and educational institutions in order to promote his Russification agenda and turn the Armenian Church into a pliant tool in his own hands. In 1885, the Armenian Church operated 330 parochial schools in the Caucasus and southern Russia, including 83 schools for girls.

Throughout the 1890’s, a number of decisions were made to take those schools out of the jurisdiction of Echmiadzin and to limit the use of the Armenian language in the school curriculum. By the end of the decade, more than 200 Armenian schools were shut down by the decisions of the tsarist government. Khrimian tried to circumvent these decisions and open Church-funded seminaries instead, but the authorities responded by ordering the confiscation of all school properties, including the school buildings.

The efforts made by the Catholicos and the Armenian Church to find a ‘diplomatic solution’ to this problem failed; in fact, the Russian government only intensified its assault on the Armenian school system and the Armenian Apostolic Church. These policies culminated in the promulgation of a new law on June 12th, 1903, which mandated the confiscation of all Armenian church properties.

This was a clear attempt to destroy the remaining autonomy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, make it a servant of the Russian tsar, and Russify the educational system that had until then served to preserve the national identity of the Apostolic Armenian population in the Caucasus. Neither the Armenian Church nor the Armenian public could tolerate this assault on the identity of the nation.

Relying on massive popular support and the influential revolutionary organizations (mainly, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, ARF), Khrimian Hayrik headed the resistance movement against the tsarist regime in order to save the Armenian religious and educational institutions and prevent the implementation of the tsar’s assimilationist policies.

The people’s movement against the tsarist oppression rejuvenated the 83-year old Catholicos, who headed the struggle to protect the rights of Russian Armenians. Khrimian wrote multiple letters to tsar Nicholas II, urging him to either reconsider his decision on church properties or to allow the Catholicos to move his residence to a different country, where he could continue to fulfill his responsibilities to his flock.

The Hayrik argued against the legality of the tsar’s decree by appealing to the Polozhenie (Statute) of 1836, which granted the Armenian Church the right to open and operate its own schools. The Catholicos also rejected the accusations of the Russian viceroy in the Caucasus, Grigory Golitsyn (1838 – 1907), who characterized Khrimian and the Armenians as recalcitrant separatists aiming to rebel against the Russian monarch. Since the tsar ignored his letters, Khrimian assumed full responsibility for the situation and called upon the Armenian clergy to refuse to surrender the church properties to Russian officials.

The rebellious Catholicos worked hand-in-hand with the ARF to organize the Armenian population against Russian oppression, and despite the persecutions suffered by both the clergy and lay Armenians during the two-year struggle, the tsar finally relented. Motivated by the fierce Armenian resistance, the impact of his loss in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 – 1905, and the rising tide of revolution across his empire, Nicholas II reversed his decision on Armenian church properties on August 1, 1905., This was a victory for the Armenians and their spiritual leader, who had turned his cross into a sword every time he had to defend the vital interests of his people.

The celebratory mood did not last long, however. In order to punish the Armenians and dampen their revolutionary fervor, Nicholas II and his officials resorted to a time-tested Russian policy: pitting the Muslim Tatar (Azeri) hordes against the Armenian population across the Caucasus.

In his quest to teach the Armenian people a lesson, the tsarist government had decided to use the most backward and fanatical element in the Caucasus – the Tatars (Azeris) – against its most advanced (revolutionary) segment – the Armenians. The Russian authorities organized the Armeno-Tatar clashes of 1905, which occurred in three phases.

The Tatar mobs first launched attacks against the Armenians on February 6 (19), 1905, at the directive of the governor of Baku, Nakashidze. By the end of the month, the pogroms had spread to Yerevan, Nakhichevan, and Artsakh. The third wave of massacres began in Baku in August and then spread to Gandzak, Tiflis, and Eastern Armenia (centered in Syunik). Khrimian Hayrik tried to negotiate with the Muslim clergy to prevent further bloodshed, but when the effort proved futile, he once again partnered with the ARF to organize the self-defense of the Armenian population and provided money to the defenders to buy weapons and supplies. Under the leadership of Nikol Duman, the Armenians in Baku counterattacked and caused the enemy to suffer heavy losses. After finishing his work in Baku, Duman went on to lead the self-defense movement in the Yerevan province. Similar efforts were organized in Artsakh (Hamazasp, Vardan), Zangezur (Keri), and Tiflis (Armen Garo).

In his meetings with tsarist officials, the Catholicos complained that the Russian policies and the inaction of government officials on the ground were leaving the Armenians with no choice other than to break the law and take up arms.

The Russian Armenians and the leaders of their Church were advocating the idea of combining all Armenian-populated areas of the region into a single Armenian district as the only means of avoiding future attacks by the Tatars. That idea was rejected by the tsarist regime, however, which used ‘divide and conquer’ strategies to keep the minorities in check. As a result, the state-sanctioned pogroms against the Armenians lasted until the revolutionary movement in the Russian Empire began to subside (Fall 1906).

Only then did the tsarist government decide that it was time to stop the carnage in the Caucasus. Though no official data exists on the number of human lives lost during this period, the estimates range from 3,000 to 10,000. The Armeno-Tatar clashes, like the Hamidian massacres a decade earlier, once again taught the Armenian people the value of self-defense and showed the vulnerability of both Eastern and Western Armenians against the Turco-Tatars.

The idea of self-reliance in a struggle against aggressive neighbors and repressive regimes preached by Khrimian came to dominate the Armenian consciousness at the start of the 20th century. That shift in consciousness promoted by the Hayrik would play an important role in the years ahead as the Armenian people took their destiny into their hands to create and defend the Republic of Armenia – their first independent state in more than five centuries.

Khrimian Hayrik did not live to see the formation of the First Republic or the catastrophe of the Armenian Genocide that preceded it. He spent his last years continuing to fight the battles that had defined his life: educating the Armenian people and enlightening their clergy, securing assistance for those displaced by massacres (1905 – 1906) and impacted by famine (1907), and improving the administration of the Church and making it more apt at meeting the needs of his people.

Khrimian relied on his impeccable reputation among the Armenians to raise funds to build schools and repair monasteries, including those in Sevan, Haghpat, and Sanahin, among others. The ‘pioneer of national liberation,’ as Catholicos Vazgen I called Khrimian decades later, died in Echmiadzin on October 29, 1907, leaving his orphaned people with a powerful message of hope and a vision that helped them achieve independence a decade after his death.

The Hayrik was able to inspire a national liberation struggle and turn the Church into one of its leading agents despite the opposition from the conservative clergy, the reactionary tsar, and the bloodthirsty sultan. Mkrtich Khrimian was indeed ‘one of the few truly great figures in the history of the Armenian Church,’ who preached his message of self-reliance and self-defense, appealing to the Bible and the conduct of Jesus Christ to demonstrate that being Christian did not mean being obedient and subservient in the face of oppression. Thanks to his tireless efforts on behalf of his people, the Hayrik has been viewed by Armenians worldwide as a true patriot and an exemplary churchman, who helped awaken an entire nation from centuries of darkness and repression.


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