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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Armenian Church's Catholicos Mourned

Armenia and the world's far-flung Armenian communities mourned Wednesday the death of the nation's spiritual leader, Catholicos Karekin I, who died Tuesday at his residence in Echmiadzin of throat cancer. He was 66.

An Oxford-trained theologian fluent in English, French and Arabic, he held the title of Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, with a flock of more than 6 million.

Head of one of the world's oldest churches, he was a leading exponent of ecumenism among Christians and was well-known among church leaders.

Like ancient churches in Egypt, Ethiopia and India, the Armenian church separated from the original Christian church over the definition of Christ's nature as human or divine, promulgated by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Pope John Paul II expressed regret Wednesday that he had been unable to make a visit of "brotherly friendship" to Armenia, as he had planned, before the patriarch's death. "A deep bond of affection linked me to him," the pope said.

Patriarch Alexy II of the Russian Orthodox Church and Christian leaders worldwide joined in mourning.

Karekin became head of the Armenian Apostolic Church in April 1995. He was the first such leader elected in centuries within an independent Armenia. The nation had emerged only four years earlier after seven decades of Communism and centuries of Russian, Turkish and Syrian rule.

Karekin was the 131st in a line of church leaders stretching back to St. Gregory the Illuminator, who converted King Tiridates III of Armenia in 301. Christianity became Armenia's official religion a decade before the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine.

Karekin was born Neshan Sarkisyan in Kessab, Syria, on Aug. 27, 1932. After graduating from a seminary in 1952, he was ordained a celibate priest and took the name Karekin.

He studied at Oxford from 1957 to 1959, and moved to Lebanon where he served as a seminary dean, became a bishop in 1964 and rose to become the head of the Catholicossate of Cilicia, a self-governing see within the Armenian Church. He was a noted theologian and also wrote poetry. But in interviews, he emphasized that above all, he saw himself as a pastor.

Following the death of Catholicos Vasken I in 1994, Karekin was elected Catholicos at a national church council in 1995. Then-Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan spoke in favor of Karekin's election, arguing it would bring about a unification of the sees of Echmiadzin and Cilicia, which have been divided by largely political Cold War-era enmities.

That, however, has not happened. Karekin, who was seen as a pro-Western leader, had a complicated relationship with the former Soviet bishops and church leaders. For the past 1 1/2 years, he was gravely ill and had to appoint a deputy, Archbishop Karekin Nersesyan, a potential successor when a new Catholicos is elected.

Burial will take place in Echmiadzin on July 9. A memorial service will be held in Moscow's Armenian Church on July 8, and the Armenian Embassy will receive condolences.