Religious actors as targets of harassment, ‘Cut it or break it, my roots are in heaven’

Anna Elbakyan, 'My lips speak of an overflow in my heart just like yours. My heart is simply filled with God's clemency.'
Anna Elbakyan, ‘My lips speak of an overflow in my heart just like yours. My heart is simply filled with God’s clemency.’

The meaning of life and happiness of two actors has become a target of harassment and assault for reactionary groups and media. Actors of different generations Anna Elbakyan and Arsen Grigoryan are members of “Rema” Church of Evangelical faith.

Seceded from Armenian Pentacostal church, Rema was established in 2000. It was legally registered in 2006. With 1000 members onboard, the church maintains communities in Yerevan, Artashat, Masis, Stepanakert and Akhaltsikhe.  It is a member of Union of Churches of Evangelical Faith in Armenia.

Elbakyan’s daughter actress Lily Elbakyan and several other actors are also members of Rema. This fact could be of no lesser importance if that choice of theirs had had not become a topic for public discussion from time to time. Calling the artist-members of non-Apostholic church ‘sectarian’ some religious-nationalist organizations and the media list their names as if they have caught culprits in the act.

Arsen Grigoryan explains why the actors become members of especially “Rema”,
‘I was taken by the word of sermon. I never felt that I had appeared  in a place where I wanted to turn myself into somebody else. I have experienced the Spirit of Freedom that is probably the greatest gift of God.’

The recent harassment campaign on religious actors happened last year, in September 2013 when the organizations called “United Youth League” and “We” started a movement against non-Apostolic churches. They called it “a struggle against sectarianism” (they were collecting signatures to ban those churches, see more here). The “United Youth League” published the names of 25 actors who according to them were members of non-Apostolic, Evangelical churches.

The publication was immediately circulated as a sensation among numerous news websites. In that publication abound with misunderstandings, next to Anna and Lilit Elbakyans’ names it was written ‘according to some sources, members of “Armenian Evangelical Church” sect’ and next to Arsen Grigoryan’s name it appeared ‘according to some information we have, member of “Word of Life” sect’.

Anna Elbakyan says that fearing those attacks a lot of Evangelical believers don’t disclose their faith. In order to dispel doubts regarding their sectarian views some believers even specially emphasize that they are godparents of Apostolics or that they baptized their children in an Apostolic church.

32-year old Arsen Grigoryan regards those attacks also as an interest towards his persona as a famous actor and tries to take them easy,

‘Cut it or break it, my roots are in heaven,’ he says. ‘I would like to disappoint all those people; God’s presence is so strong that even if the whole world stood against it, nothing would change for me. God’s defense is so supernatural that those talks don’t even manage to taunt slightly.’ In his opinion all the Christian churches are God’s homes and the differences are only in the rituals.

Arsen Grigoryan who currently works at “Kamerayin” (Chamber) theater and “Armenia” TV company says that throughout his professional career the employers have never referred to his faith, ‘In that sense I am happy. Don’t know what should happen in Armenia that finding a job became harder because of faith.’

Anna Elbakyan, nonetheless endures that propaganda with a great difficulty, ‘You don’t understand how the slightest notice that we are in another church causes nights and nights and more sleepless nights to us.’ Anna Elbakyan who played in more than 40 performances and 14 films is considered by the audience and the professionals as one of the best actresses of Armenian theatrical scene. These days she continues her artistic work at “Edgar Elbakyan” theatre run by her husband Armen Elbakyan and at the same time she stages performances as the chief director of State Marionette Theatre.

Sunday sermon at Rema church. Photo by Nazik Armenakyan
Sunday sermon at Rema church.
Photo by Nazik Armenakyan

Each harassment campaign awakes the obnoxious memories of an anonymous slander against Elbakyan couple published nine years ago in a 18 January 2005 issue of “Azg” daily. It is worth mentioning that its editor Hakob Avetiqyan’s brother is a priest at Armenian Apostolic church. Entitled “Soul hunt continues” the article was describing how allegedly a group of “hisounakans” (pentecostals) would gather in an apartment in Yerevan and that Armen and Anna Elbakyans would attend those gatherings, make noises and have “group sex” (the publication was signed by R. R.). A month later, on 2 March “Azg” wrote a refutation of apology for actors.

‘I have really been harassed, seriously harassed,’ says Anna Elbakyan. ‘We were slandered many times. Even such an absurd slander like the one that our family was exercising no less than  libertinisim, group sex occurred. Sometimes you want to forgive and forget but that rubbish often makes big noise that is inappropriate, ugly and it is no longer appropriate to keep silence, especially when you’re working at children’s theatre and the innocent eyes of a child are following your activities. The editor asked for an apology, he published a small refutation and washed his hands of considering that everything was OK because it was the same for him whether we were having group sex or wanted to understand whether God really existed or not or how the Bible was written.’

“Rema” church re-interpreted Anna Elbakyan’s life full of hardship. It gave her a landmark in life and a power to face the great misfortune.

The hardest hit in her life was the death of her 18-year-old son Edgar Elbakyan who drowned in Hrazdan lake in 2000, ‘Me and Armen we went to Hrazdan when we first heard the news. I remember my feet weakened like cotton… they just weakened and my husband came, lifted me up, he looked in my eyes and said, ‘This is probably the only thing that I’m powerless to change.’

‘When one is confronted with death nothing else can help her, nothing. She lifts up her head, not simply lifts it but wants somebody to hold her hand in life at that moment. So in my life that Someone held my hand and while we are going through all difficulties up till now he holds my hand.’

Anna is comforted with the fact that before her son rested he had already come to faith. He was reading the Bible and his outlook had completely changed.

She was already attending the “Rema” church at that time. She said that the greatest change in her life was that after divorcing several times with her husband she finally reunited with him by “God’s will”, ‘We tried to reunite 3-4 times but this happened without God’s presence. And when Armen proposed me to reunite I asked him, ‘Is it because I’m the mother of your children?’. He said, ‘No because I need you,’ – And actually I really got married for the first time in my life. My eyes opened up and I understood that we were made for each other, it was a real marriage.I am indebted to God. Before my son’s departure we managed to reunite with Armen. Our son wanted us to live together very much.’

Anna recounts her past life before the repentance; she was a self-confident, emancipated woman who had left her husband and was raising the children alone. The best actress at Hamazgayin theatre, she had many roles, she was famous and beloved, ‘My life was going up, in quotation marks.’ But in fact she considered life finished; she couldn’t find meaning and according to her description she was experiencing a spiritual death, ‘When there’s everything but nothing at the same time you understand that you either need to die or revive.’

Arsen Grigoryan, 'I was taken by the word of sermon. I never felt that I had appeared  in a place where I wanted to to turn myself into another person. I have experienced the Spirit of Freedom that is probably the greatest gifts of God.'
Arsen Grigoryan, ‘I was taken by the word of sermon. I never felt that I had appeared in a place where I wanted to to turn myself into another person. I have experienced the Spirit of Freedom that is probably the greatest gifts of God.’

Where could she go, who could she address, who could help her to fill the spiritual emptiness? Several times she tried to repent at Armenian Apostolic church but she didn’t get help. ‘I would often go to my favorite St. Hovhannes church. I wanted to understand the secret of real repentance. Even during my tours in Los Angeles, in 1997 I visited the Apostolic Church and told the priest I wanted to repent. I had a feeling that my end was near and that I needed to repent very much. The priest shook his head and said, ‘Who can be a better believer than you? Go my daughter, go,’ – And I left the church with nothing.’

A year later, in 1998 she repented at “Rema” (back then the church didn’t have a name). The actress found the church through the help of her religious friends. In past she regarded them critically as people who had deviated from Apostolic church and at that time she suddenly wanted to understand what was the difference between them and her.

So she visited it, ‘I was very famous. When people saw me they would stop doing what they did and start following me. But an interesting thing happened: I entered there and nobody paid attention to me and I liked it very much. I understood that there was somebody who was much more important but I couldn’t see him. Nevertheless I saw him in all of them.’

Just as Arsen Grigoryan, Anna was also baptized two times, the first time in Apostolic church and the second time in Rema.

The preaching of Rema church pastor Karen Khachatryan
The preaching of Rema church pastor Karen Khachatryan

Arsen was baptized at an Apostolic church in his early childhood. He is very happy for that, ‘Because I believe that I got a supernatural protection of the Lord.’  And in Rema the baptism by his decision took place with ‘water’. ‘I’m a person who always makes his own independent choices. I needed this baptism to take place by my decision.’

Anna Elbakyan was first baptized during her wedding ceremony with her husband at St. Sargis church, ‘If you are not baptized they can’t wed you at the church. That’s why me, my husband and my sister, everyone got baptized at once. I’m very thankful for that because I really believe that God united us at that moment.’

She considers her second baptism a religious renaissance, ‘One can get baptized for five times but he might experience nothing and change nothing in his live. When I was immersed into that water I wanted to get out of that water as a person who died for her old life and who resurrected for a new life. That’s what the sacrament of baptism means.’

She became forgiving not indifferent in the first place, ‘You can’t sleep peacefully if a compatriot has a sorrow. What is fame in the face of God? If you appear in front of him he will ask you whose feet you have washed whom you have given a glass of water.’

Anna says that knowing about her fervent faith and affiliation with Rema church they addressed her from Ejmiatsin and asked not to preach, ‘But I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness to preach to strangers. I told them, ‘My lips speak of an overflow in my heart just like yours. My heart is simply filled with God’s clemency.’

Anna hasn’t cut herself off Apostolic church. She often goes on pilgrimage with her husband and it is unpleasant for her when the two churches are being separated into ‘us’ and ‘you’, ‘Whatever they say, even if they don’t consider me one of them, God knows how much I love Apostolic church and how much I want it to live a life of a wakeful community.’

She thinks that just as any publication regarding her faith this one will also cause slanders against her, ‘Do you know that if you publish this I will be the one hit the hardest? But I know the value of my word. I have no fear. You simply become an issue of impertinent word of mouth and that is very painful.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *