Why the Lance of Longinus is at the centre of a national controversy

The Armenian Apostolic Church, part of Oriental Orthodoxy, was the world’s first state church, established in AD 301. And it’s in crisis. For two months protesters have been calling for the resignation of its patriarch, Catholicos Karekin II. A sit-in protest in the diocesan headquarters was broken up by police. Scuffles have erupted between clergy.

The claims against the patriarch are colourful. Critics accuse him of fathering two children, of being involved in shady business deals and of selling diocesan-owned treasures: in particular, a piece of the relic of Longinus, which tradition holds was the spear that pierced Jesus’s side. Last week the diocese, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, put the relic on display to answer the claim.

The crisis makes sense only in light of Armenia’s recent political drama. In April its long-term leader, Serzh Sargsyan, was ousted after weeks of massive protests. This populist movement – called the “velvet revolution” – has now turned its attention to Karekin II, who is seen as close to the corrupt old regime. Its slogan is “New Armenia, New Patriarch”.

Long-standing grievances against the patriarch have been revived. One critic, the political analyst Stepan Danilyan, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Russian daily, that Karekin II was a “closed and shadowy” figure who refuses to give press conferences. He is thought to be too mixed up in business – a claim given greater weight by the discovery of a million-dollar Swiss bank account in his name. (A press spokesman said it was opened by his predecessor and used to help the Church.)

Karekin II has cancelled a visit to the US and met the protesters. Those sympathetic to the patriarch want the country’s new leader, Nikol Pashinyan, to intervene to reduce tensions. Pashinyan, a T-shirt and cap-wearing former journalist, has merely reiterated that church and state are separate.

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