Hovannisian Hits Back At Church Head As Thousands Again Rally In Yerevan

Emil Danielyan

Dismissing criticism from the Armenian Apostolic Church, opposition leader Raffi Hovannisian kept up the pressure on the government on Friday with another rally in Yerevan’s Liberty Square attended thousands of his supporters.

In a speech delivered almost one week after the start of his hunger strike, Hovannisian denounced the supreme head of the church, Catholicos Garegin II, for endorsing the official results of last month’s disputed presidential election that gave victory to President Serzh Sarkisian. He also lambasted Armenia’s Constitutional Court for validating those results and scheduled more protests in the square.

Earlier in the day, Garegin’s office issued a statement urging Hovannisian to end his hunger strike, opt for “more constructive means for political struggle” and steer clear of “manifestations of intolerance and hatred.” It also condemned his earlier warning that Garegin will “desecrate the Bible” if he attends and blesses Sarkisian’s inauguration scheduled for April 9.

Armenia - Catholicos Garegin II (L) meets President Serzh Sarkisian to congratulate him on winning a second term, Yerevan, 19Feb2013.Armenia - Catholicos Garegin II (L) meets President Serzh Sarkisian to congratulate him on winning a second term, Yerevan, 19Feb2013.
​​“We consider all attempts to make the Holy Church, the Armenian Catholicos, and the Gospel of the Virgin Mary (that is used during the swearing-in ceremony of Armenia's President) targets of political exploitation to be unacceptable,” read the statement.

“Shame on those who wrote this statement,”  Hovannisian shot back at the rally. “The people do not want to insert the Gospel of the Virgin Mary into this political struggle … “The state and the church are separate, and not appendages of each other,” he said.

Garegin was quick to congratulate Sarkisian on winning a second term in the February 18 election. He personally delivered a congratulatory message to the incumbent together with several other high-ranking clergymen the day after the disputed ballot. “Your victory in the elections testifies to the fact that our people trust your programs of reformation and appreciate Your efforts and dedication,” read the message.

Hovannisian hade said that he will remain on hunger strike until April 9 and that Sarkisian will be sworn in for a second term only “over my dead body.” He has also pledged to hold more demonstrations in Liberty Square in the process.

Despite having refused food for the past five days, the opposition leader looked vigorous and stood on the podium throughout Friday’s rally, which lasted for two hours. Attendance at the rally was at least as strong as during his previous protest staged in the square last Sunday.

​​The rally again featured speeches by members of Hovannisian’s Zharangutyun (Heritage) party as well as other opposition politicians and public figures. One of them, outspoken opposition lawmaker Nikol Pashinian, urged Hovannisian to organize a huge demonstration in Yerevan’s main Republic Square on April 9. He said that by attending that protest in large numbers Armenians would turn Sarkisian’s indoor inauguration into a “pitiful procedure.”

“On that day, the people of Armenia should show whom they elected president and whom they didn’t,” stated Pashinian.

Hovannisian said he will discuss this proposal with Pashinian and other opposition figures in the coming days.