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Controversy after Armenian Catholicos’ New Year speech not aired on Public TV

4 January 2024
Yerevan's city centre on New Year's Eve. Photo: Yerevan Municipality

Armenia’s Apostolic Church and Public TV are in dispute after the head of the church’s New Year’s Eve speech was not broadcast for the first time in Armenia’s post-independence history, amidst a souring in relations between the church and the government. 

In previous years, the public broadcaster has aired a speech by the Catholicos, the head of the Armenian church, shortly before midnight on New Year’s Eve. 

A statement released by the Mother See, the Church’s governing body, on the evening of 31 December alleged that the public broadcaster had ‘at the last minute’ and ‘without any reason’ informed them that the message would not be broadcast. 

‘Instead, it was proposed to present the address of the Patriarch of All Armenians during the evening edition of the news, which was judged to be inappropriate by the Mother See and accordingly rejected,’ said the statement. It added that any other explanations of the event were ‘fabrications’. 

The statement came after government-affiliated media shared claims by an Armenian pro-government blogger that the church’s Catholicos Karekin II had given an ultimatum that his speech be broadcast at midnight or not be aired at all. 

The Council of the Public Broadcaster, the body overseeing Public TV and Public Radio, issued a response on Wednesday evening, claiming that the church had withdrawn their approval on New Year’s Eve. 

It stated that the speech had been scheduled for broadcasting ‘at the time set aside for official addresses this year’, but following the speech of Armenia’s President, rather than prior to the Prime Minister’s speech as had previously been the case. 

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It added that a representative of the church had on 31 December voiced the institution’s disagreement with the scheduled timing, and ‘demanded not to broadcast or use the video recording of the Catholicos’ message, whose copyright belongs to the Mother See’. 

The statement also noted that the request had only related to Public TV, meaning that the message was still broadcast on Shogakat, a religious and cultural TV channel, and Public Radio

It also suggested that, while there was no legislative regulation regarding the broadcasting of New Year’s messages in Armenia, the issue be settled ‘legislatively’ in light of the public response. 

Drawing ‘dividing lines’ between church and government

The news received wide public attention, with many condemning either the broadcaster or the head of the church on social media. 

Some noted that, while the issue was not legislatively enshrined, the order in which the speeches were presented was a tradition that the public broadcaster had disrupted. 

‘Two things are important to me: a) disregarding tradition, b) and most importantly, drawing new dividing lines between Armenia’s political authorities and the Mother See,’ wrote journalist Tatul Hakobyan. 

Relations between the government and the church’s leadership have deteriorated since a change of power took place following Armenia’s Velvet Revolution in 2018. 

The antipathy became more open in the aftermath of the defeat of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, when the head of the church joined calls for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation.

In April 2023, the Catholicos reaffirmed his call for Pashinyan to resign, prompting the Prime Minister to state that  ‘if the church wants to carry out political activities, Armenia is a democratic country’.

‘Nothing prevents them from creating a party and carrying out political activities within the framework of that party, which will be more honest, and they will be on the same level in front of the voters and with other political rivals.’

The church also condemned the ‘dangerous and unacceptable positions adopted by the authorities’ in May 2023, following Pashinyan’s statement that Armenia was ready to recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan. 

Despite criticism from the church, the government removed The History of the Armenian Church as a standalone subject from the public school curriculum in April 2023.