Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Parish Fights for Popular Priest; Karekin II Twice Threatens Defrockment

Author: Carissa Vanitzian
Date Published: 11/16/2002

PHOENIX, AZ – A showdown between a Philadelphia-area parish and the leadership of the Armenian Church’s Eastern Diocese has resulted in a tense truce that calls for the Very Rev. Fr. Sasoon Zumrookhdian to be transferred to an Argentina parish.

If Fr. Sasoon disobeys the transfer order or engages in any litigation. His Holiness Karekin II will carry out a threat to defrock him, according to
remarks His Holiness made during private meetings between the two men in Etchmiadzin in June and September.

Months of private negotiations suddenly took a very public turn in August, when Eastern Diocese Archbishop Khajag Barsamian sent a Pastoral Letter to members of the Philadelphia-area Armenian community. The letter was sent to members of Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church, Armenian Martyrs Congregational Church, St. Sahag & St. Mesrob Armenian Church, St. Mark’s Armenian Catholic Church, St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church, and Armenian Sisters Academy.

“Accepting Fr. Sasoon for service in our Diocese and assigning him to serve in your parish may pose significant moral, legal and financial risk to the Diocese, to your parish and to the Armenian Church in general,” His Eminence wrote, without providing specifics.

The letter, which many have described as defamatory, provoked hundreds of angry responses from the community, including a letter signed by 16 parish council members and diocesan delegates of St. Sahag & St. Mesrob Church.

“We are heartsick that you have exhibited such insensitivity,” the letter said, adding that “Surely, Your Eminence and the Diocesan Council must have the responsibility and duty to ensure that Hayr Sasoon was treated with fairness and an open mind.

“However, it is our belief that this was not the case, and that Hayr Sasoon, instead, was cast aside and treated as if he were a criminal.”

Abp. Barsamian would not comment publicly on his Pastoral Letter, deferring questions to Haig Dadourian, Chairman of the Eastern Diocesan Council.

“It is our practice not to comment on personnel matters,” Dadourian said about the controversy. He said the Diocesan Council was not involved in writing the letter, which he said was composed by the archbishop himself.

“I don’t remember” seeing it in advance of the mailing,” he said.

Father Sasoon, described by parishioners as “Christlike,” “truly holy,” and “a model priest,” began his appointment as interim pastor of Holy Trinity on July 12, 2001, after serving at parishes in Sacramento and Fresno, California. A chronology of events provided by the Holy Trinity Parish Council states that Abp. Barsamian assured them the interim period would last six months. If the council then wanted Fr. Sasoon as their permanent priest, His Eminence would formalize the permanent assignment.

Halfway through the six-month period, however, council members decided they were so impressed with Fr. Sasoon’s job performance that they unanimously voted in favor of his permanent assignment.

“Everybody loves him, not only in our church but the Philadelphia Armenian community as a whole,” said Robert Damerjian, Sr., chairman of the Holy Trinity Parish Council. “He’s got a lot of talent, he’s outgoing, he can get things done, get committees together, and he has a lot of energy.”

But the parish’s request for Fr. Sasoon’s permanent appointment was not answered, resulting in a second request to the archbishop on December 17, 2001.

“Upon receipt of the second request, Khajag Surpazan told the Parish Council that Hayr Sasoon was under investigation,” according to the council’s statement.

No specifics were provided by the archbishop.

“The archbishop made a promise to me and a promise to the parish, but he reneged on that promise,” said Fr. Sasoon in a recent interview, adding that he has always been available to answer any questions.

On August 19, 2002, Abp. Barsamian instructed Fr. Sasoon to sign a letter of resignation. The priest refused, on grounds the act would be done under duress. Later that day, the archbishop faxed a letter to Holy Trinity, stating that Fr. Sasoon was fired and forbidden from performing any of the church’s sacraments.

During a contentious October 15, 2002 meeting involving Diocesan Council representatives, Abp. Barsamian, and the Parish Council, the archbishop told the gathering that he did not find any fault with Fr. Sasoon’s ministry but Dadourian reportedly said there were “issues” about the priest. He did not elaborate.

Dadourian now says he does not recollect saying that, but others do. “We concluded that his statement was either fabricated or based on rumor, gossip, and hearsay,” said Garo Garibian, MD, a Holy Trinity diocesan delegate at the meeting.

“Furthermore, the Diocesan Council as a group has not met with Hayr Sasoon even once, yet they tried him, they judged him, and they sentenced him.”

On November 2, Father Sasoon notified His Holiness Karekin II in a telephone conversation that he plans to move to Argentina in December,
to begin serving his new parish. The catholicos reportedly was pleased.

In the meantime, Holy Trinity intends to continue fighting for the priest’s return. Haig Dadourian says the Diocesan Council will engage in “close communication” with all parishes. And many Armenians in Philadelphia area now wondering whether Fr. Sasoon’s worst sin may have been that of doing his job too well.

(A follow up to this story will appear next week.)