The voices of a small Armenian choir reverberate off the ancient walls of a 17th century church in the rugged hills of Yerevan. Outside the tiny parish, churchgoers huddle, clamoring to get a peek of the evening service.
It is Christmas Eve, and nearly 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Armenian Church has once again come alive.
“This is the first year I’ve attended service,” says Mane Saroyan, 20, a student at a university in Yerevan. “I consider myself a believer and a Christian. I usually come to church by myself or with family and spend quite a bit of time here."
For Saroyan the church plays a more major role in her life. She is part of a new wave of young worshippers in Armenia.
“Our church is getting younger and younger,” jokingly says Father Shmavon Ghevondyan of St. Hovhannes Armenian Apostolic Church in Yerevan. “We are seeing a new trend of Armenian youth attending service.”
In the 20th century, Armenia witnessed a series of cataclysms with the Armenian nation nearly destroyed by the Turks, the country’s identity swallowed by communism and a wave of emigration to the West.
Now, more Armenians live outside the republic than inside it. The Armenian immigrants – many of whom were raised without religion, under a communist regime – have been drawn back to the old church, helping to rebuild and sustain the Armenia’s identity.
“My father was an atheist. He didn’t believe in God; he instead believed in the Soviet Union,” says Lilit Umirshatyan, 43, a composer in Armenia. “When the system collapsed, people didn’t know what to believe in.”
Umirshatyan, who was raised in the forced secularism of the Soviet era, the church provided some hope. She baptized her three children, and attends service weekly.
Across the country, new churches are being built and restored. Building improvements are a work in progress. The walls are cleaned; windows replaced and water damage to an icon of the Virgin Mary repaired.
“Where there is an Armenian community, there is a church,” says Father Ghevondyan. “New churches are being built not just in Armenia, but outside our country as well."
In Moscow, the construction of the new church is mainly funded by the Armenians overseas.
About 94 percent of Armenians consider themselves to be Armenian Christians, having derived their faith directly from Christ’s apostles. Armenia claims to be the first nation to declare Christianity as its state religion in 301 A.D.