Jan. 17 (RNS) -- When new candles started glowing this week in ArmenianOrthodox churches around the world, everyone inside knew where the flame originated.

It came, literally, from the pit where St. Gregory served a 15-yearprison term for his Christian faith in the third century. Thelight of his faith, it is believed, never dimmed and is said to have caughtfire in King Tiridat, who made Armenia the world's first Christiannation 1,700 years ago in 301.

His Holiness Karekin II, today's Armenian pontiff, retrieved theflame at midnight on New Year's Eve from that same pit, which sits belowthe monastery of Khor Virab in Armenia. He passed the torch to diocesesaround the world.

A week later at St. Vartan Cathedral in New York,pilgrims from the region's 55 local congregations came forward to bringa piece of the fire back to their communities.

"This was really special and beautiful," one worshipper at St.Vartan's said. "Having the young people participate, seeing everyonewith their candles, knowing where the flame originated -- it really lefta lump in your throat."

Scores of local congregations received the flame in festiveceremonies Jan. 14. For many, it marked not only the enduranceof Christianity, but also the perseverance of the Armenian people.

The early Armenian Christians "had the courage to accept somethingthat wasn't fashionable," said the Rev. Mardiros Chevian, dean of St.Vartan's Cathedral. "We're now acclimating ourselves to that spirit ofdetermination.


The Armenian Orthodox church claims about 7.5 million membersworldwide, including 1.2 million in North America.