The annual address by the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church was not broadcast this New Year's by Armenia's public broadcaster, a first in the history of the country's independence.
It's the latest episode in the deepening row between the clerical establishment and the government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, which enjoys the support of Public TV.
The Church's governing body, the Mother See of the Holy Etchmiadzin, reported late on New Year's Eve that "at the last minute, the Public Television Company informed us, without giving a reason, that His Holiness' New Year's message will not be broadcast before midnight."
Traditionally, the Patriarch of All Armenians' recorded annual message has been aired on Public TV, and other channels, immediately before the address of the country's top political leader. This year, the broadcaster instead offered to show the Patriarch's message during the evening news bulletin several hours earlier. The Mother See declined.
Patriarch Karekin II's message was therefore conspicuously absent from state-funded broadcaster's airwaves and YouTube page.
As the rumors about the exclusion of the Patriarch's address started to circulate on New Year's Eve, several news platforms affiliated with family members of senior officials, including the Armenian Times, owned by Pashinyan's wife Anna Hakobyan, accused the Church of stoking controversy.
"Karekin II gave an ultimatum to TV channels that his speech must be broadcast at 12 o'clock, otherwise it should not be aired. Naturally, this ultimatum sparked unwarranted controversies, and many TV channels have no choice but to exclude Karekin II's address," pro-government blogger Roman Baghdasaryan wrote in a remark widely reported by pro-Pashinyan online media.
In fact, the address was shown at the usual time by the country's private TV channels.
The Church's relationship with the Pashinyan government has been uncomfortable from the start. It had enjoyed friendly ties with the previous regime that was swept out of power by the Pashinyan-led "velvet revolution" in 2018. Shortly afterward clerical elites faced an internal uprising of their own which was ultimately not successful.
Church-state tensions were at a low boil until Armenia's defeat against Azerbaijan in the Second Karabakh War in late 2020. The Church boldly struck out against Pashinyan's government, accusing it of compromising national interests by recognizing Azerbaijani rule over Karabakh and presented a series of political demands, including the PM's resignation.
The Church stepped up its criticism following Azerbaijan's lightning offensive to capture all of Nagorno Karabakh on September 19-20 that resulted in the forced displacement of the region's 100,000-some Armenian population.
Late last year, the Church objected to what it called inaccuracies in narrating key events related to Christianity in a new 7th-grade history textbook for public schools and to a map in the book that places Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan.
On December 26, the Holy See disclosed a letter it had addressed to the Minister of Education, Sciences, Culture, and Sports in late November that asked for a review of the alleged "omissions and errors" in the textbooks.
During a professional conference on the revision of textbooks last week, Minister Zhanna Andreasyan told the Church to stay out of it. "The ministry respects the position of the church, but the state organizes education," she said.
This episode followed the government's decision last April to remove the History of the Armenian Church as a separate subject from the public school curriculum, a move criticized by Patriarch Karekin II as "short-sighted."
It's not clear what led the government-friendly broadcaster's decision not to air the top cleric's address at the usual time this year. It contained no direct criticism of the Pashinyan administration - or indeed any political statement - over the painful issue of Karabakh.
"Let us surround our sisters and brothers forcibly displaced from Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh] with caring love; let us increase hope in them so that the vision of returning to native Artsakh never fades and faith in God remains strong. Let us support the needy and distressed and seek the help of the Most High for our missing and captured ones and their families," Karekin II said in the address, according to an English translation posted on the Church's website.
Public TV's refusal to carry the address as normal was seized on by critics of the incumbent authorities.
Arman Tatoyan, who served as human rights ombudsman during the previous government, denounced the decision as "[An] encroachment against the values of the Armenian people and our national identity, undermining the moral foundations of Armenian statehood. It is an insult to our history."
Shortly after the Church's announcement, members of a student group affiliated with the opposition Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) hung banners outside the entrance of Public TV headquarters reading "SHAME" and "TRT1," the latter being the name of the first channel of the state broadcaster of Armenia's historical rival Turkey.
In a Facebook post featuring images of the banners, the union stated, "SHAME on the management of the Public Television Company for serving the regime that handed over Artsakh to Azerbaijan instead of upholding the public interest."
Lilit Shahverdyan is a journalist based in Stepanakert.