THIS WEEK IN ARMENIAN HISTORY
(Prepared by the Armenian National Education Committee)
Birth of Catholicos Sahag II Khabayan
(March 25, 1849)
During his more than three decades of tenure, Catholicos Sahag II endured and witnessed the Armenian Genocide and the final catastrophe that deprived the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia of its seat of Sis.
He was born Kapriel Khabayan in the village of Yeghek, in the plain of Kharpert, on March 25, 1849. In 1867, at the age of eighteen, he entered the seminary of the Armenian monastery of St. James and was ordained deacon in 1869. He was sent to Constantinople to further his studies, and returned in 1871, becoming a teacher at the seminary. Patriarch Yesayi ordained him celibate priest on July 3, 1877 with the name Sahag. He later became editor in chief of Sion, the monthly publication of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and head of the printing house. For a time, he was a member of the Board of Directors and chairman of the General Assembly of the congregation.
Very Rev. Sahag Khabayan was sent as legate to the Caucasus in 1881. He worked there as a preacher and collected money. On January 10, 1885, he was elected sacristan of Holy Etchmiadzin and on November 24, Makar I, Catholicos of All Armenians, consecrated him bishop.
The See of Cilicia remained vacant after the death of Catholicos Mgrdich I Kefsezian (1871-1894) in November 1894. The interregnum lasted eight years. Catholicos of All Armenians Mgrdich I (1892-1907), best known as Khrimian Hayrig, favored the candidacy of Bishop Sahag Khabayan. On October 12, 1902, 62 delegates from the fifteen dioceses under the jurisdiction of the Catholicosate elected Catholicos Sahag II by unanimity. The ceremony of consecration was held on April 23, 1903, in the monastery of Sis. He would be the last Catholicos consecrated in Cilician lands.
The relations between Etchmiadzin and Sis grew closer during Sahag II’s years, who established the preferential mention of the name of the Catholicos of All Armenians in the Holy Mass with an encyclical. He worked actively to renovate and improve the monastery, which had fallen into disrepair and inactivity. He reopened the seminary of Sis in 1906.
Years of turmoil and destruction loomed ahead. He first witnessed the massacre of Adana in 1909, and, in the first months of the Armenian Genocide, he was exiled to Aleppo, where he witnessed and reported extensively on the misery of the deportees, and then to Jerusalem. Another exile followed in 1917, this time to Damascus. After the end of World War I, he returned to Cilicia, now put under French mandate, with the survivors in 1919.
A second set of catastrophes unleashed in 1920 with the attacks of the Kemalist forces and the passive stance of the French. After the massacre of Marash in February, Sis was evacuated in June, and Hadjin fell to another massacre after an eight-month heroic resistance in October. Catholicos Sahag went to Paris to defend the cause of Cilicia, but in vain. In 1921 the last Armenian remnants left Cilicia and the Catholicos was the leader of his flock. For the next eight years, the historical See of Cilicia would have a wandering life, from Aleppo to Damascus to Beirut to Cyprus. The pastoral letter written by Sahag II in Damascus on February 28, 1922, was highly eloquent in its opening statement: “Greetings to the Armenians of Cilicia, now emigrated and spread throughout the world, greetings to the suffering from the suffering Shepherd, from Catholicos Sahag II of the once Great and now Ruined House of Cilicia.” The document emphasized:
“Make your voice heard, dear children, where are you? I want to follow the trail of your crucifixion, if not to materially and morally help you, at least to share your grief and lighten your yoke and burden. I wish the yoke and burden belonged to Christ. The yoke put by the world and implacable men is asphyxiating, and their burden is heaviest and bitterest.
“(. . .) This lionhearted people, although famished, naked, and homeless in foreign lands, do not beg. They wait for any moral or material help from their families, who remained free of any calamity, terror, and suffering in free countries, although they cried over the unknown tombs of their dearest ones. You cried and gave abundantly to relieve, make live, and defend the overlooked rights of those left alive.”
In 1929 Sahag II appealed for help to the Near East Relief that managed an orphanage in Antelias, then a suburban area of Beirut. The charitable organization leased the property to the Catholicosate for the symbolic price of a dollar per year. Cilicia was reborn in Antelias. In 1930, due to the advanced age of the Catholicos, Archbishop Papken Guleserian, aged 62, was designated Coadjutor Catholicos as Papken I. He was supposed to succeed Sahag II, then aged 81, but this did not happen. Both Church leaders worked together to strengthen the Catholicosate until the premature death of Coadjutor Catholicos Papken I in 1936.
The Armenian community of Lebanon celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the enthronement of Sahag II on June 18, 1933. President Charles Debbas decorated the Catholicos with the order of the Republic of Lebanon in the first degree.
Sahag II closed a life of continuous service to the Church and his people on October 8, 1939, in Antelias, at the age of 90.