By WOLFGANG SAXON
Published: August 19, 1994
Catholicos Vazgen I, who headed the Armenian Apostolic Church throughout the world, died yesterday at his residence in Yerevan, the Armenian capital. He was 85.
A statement released in New York said he had suffered a long illness. It said the church would observe 40 days of mourning.
Through nearly four decades in office, Catholicos Vazgen embodied the national identity of Armenians at home and in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. A mostly Christian people widely scattered since World War I, Armenians have looked to the church as a symbol of their nationality, especially during the era of official atheism in Soviet Armenia.
Christianity came to Armenia in the fourth century and thus had older and perhaps deeper roots than elsewhere in the Russian Empire. Catholicos Vazgen, Supreme Patriarch of All Armenians, succeeded in loosening the shackles of the Armenian Gregorian Church well before the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Aided by substantial contributions from the diaspora, he proved a nimble player in what essentially was a political cat-and-mouse game involving Soviet officialdom and his church. By the early 1970's, he could report that there remained little interference with believers.
Baptisms and church weddings were on the rise, and churches were being built or renovated. His own much-restored See, the Cathedral of Echmiadzin outside Yerevan, had its origins in the fourth century. The cathedral remained the focal point of Armenians everywhere, and he represented the old country to Armenians, religious or not. Meeting With Muslims
The Catholicos played a prominent part in raising donations and relief aid for the victims of the devastating earthquake that struck Armenia in 1987. This year he met with the spiritual leader of Muslims in the Caucasus Mountains in an effort to stem the long-festering feud over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in neighboring Azerbaijan.
The Armenian Prelacy in New York yesterday said, "During his reign, he advanced the church in both the homeland and diaspora, prepared many servants of the church, and strengthened ecumenical ties with sister churches."
Armenia honored him last month with its "National Hero of Armenia" award for his service in "protecting and developing our national heritage." He had been the recipient of many such citations from various governments, including that of the Soviet Union, for his work for peace.
Vasken Ghougassian, executive director of the church's American secretariat, estimated that of about 7 million Armenians, including those abroad, 95 percent were baptized into the Armenian Apostolic Church. He said about a million people of Armenian origin were living in the United States and Canada.
Catholicos Vazgen was born Levon Garabed Baljian in Bucharest and graduated with honors in 1936 from Bucharest University's Faculty of Literature and Philosophy. He was ordained in the Romanian capital in 1943 and was installed as Bishop and Prelate of the Romanian Diocese in 1951. In 1955 he was elected and consecrated as the Catholicos of all Armenians at Echmiadzin.
The obituary also misstated the date of the earthquake that devastated Armenia in the last decade. It was in 1988, not 1987.
Correction: August 25, 1994, Thursday An obituary on Friday of Catholicos Vazgen I, Supreme Patriarch and head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, referred imprecisely to the structure of the church. Since 1933, the church has been divided in two. The larger body is made up of the Eastern and Western Dioceses of the Armenian Church, which are under the administrative jurisdiction of the Catholicos at Echmiadzin in Armenia. That was Vazgen I. The other part of the church, the Eastern and Western Armenian Prelacies, recognizes the Catholicos at Echmiadzin as Supreme Patriarch of the church but is under the administrative jurisdiction of the Catholicos of Cilicia, in Antelias, Lebanon.