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

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

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

A week later at St. Vartan Cathedral in New York, pilgrims from the region's 55 local congregations came forward to bring a 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 everyone with their candles, knowing where the flame originated -- it really left a lump in your throat."

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

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

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

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