By Lauren Gelfond Feldinger
‘If Israel recognizes the Armenian genocide it won’t be the end of the world,’ says the new head of the Armenian Church in Jerusalem, which dates back to the 4th century. It might even help making the community feel less cut off from the rest of the city and country. On a recent afternoon in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Armenian Patriarchate’s new leader was treated as royalty. Black-robed priests and pilgrims young and old, visiting from Armenia, snapped photos and grinned excitedly, as they waited in line to kiss Archbishop Nourhan Manougian’s hand during a reception.
Archbishop Nourhan Manougian. Photo by Lauren Gelfond Feldinger
On a recent afternoon in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Armenian Patriarchate’s new leader was treated as royalty. Black-robed priests and pilgrims young and old, visiting from Armenia, snapped photos and grinned excitedly, as they waited in line to kiss Archbishop Nourhan Manougian’s hand during a reception.
Elected the 97th Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem in January, Manougian is now one of the top Armenian Christian leaders worldwide, in a community scattered over the globe. In Jerusalem, where the Armenian Christian presence dates back almost 1,700 years, he is also one of the most powerful Christian clerics. The Armenian patriarch shares oversight at the ancient Christian holy sites with the Greek Orthodox and Latin (Roman Catholic) patriarchs.
But despite the historical presence, the tiny Old City Armenian community often feels sidelined, Manougian told Haaretz. As the number of community members relentlessly shrinks, and is now only a few hundred, he worries if there will be future generations. Day-to-day life, he says, is also a balancing act, finding a place between the powerful Jewish Israeli and Muslim Palestinian communities. Israeli scholars echo the same concerns.
At the core of Armenian insecurities are successive Israeli governments that have ruled over them since 1967 but never officially acknowledged the 1915 Armenian genocide or its estimated 1.5 million deaths by Ottoman Turkish forces.
Many of Jerusalem’s Armenians, including Manougian, are the children and grandchildren of the survivors of the genocide. His father fled Armenia through the desert that became known as the “death fields,” as he headed to the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Born in Aleppo in 1948 and orphaned by age 5, Manougian grew up in that city, with poor relatives and the stories of the survivors around him. After seminary and ordination, serving Armenian Christians took him from Lebanon, across Europe and the United States, and to Haifa, Jaffa and finally in 1998, to Jerusalem.
Here, Armenians believe that Israel’s silence on the events of 1915 is based on maintaining favor with Turkey. “If you ask me, [recognizing the genocide] is what they have to do,” said Manougian of Israel. “What if they accept it? It won’t be the end of the world.”
Manougian also felt marginalized by Israel, while waiting five months for the state to officially recognize his title. Manougian was elected after the 2012 death of Patriarch Torkom Manoogian. Palestinian and Jordanian leaders recognized him days after the January election. Israel did not do so until June 23.
Initially, the patriarchate postponed Manougian’s inauguration, waiting for Israel to reorganize the government following its January 22 elections. But as months passed and the recognition application continued to be ignored, the patriarchate on June 4 held the inauguration anyway.
There is no law requiring it, but sending a formal letter of recognition is a Holy Land tradition dating to the Ottoman era, Manougian said. “The first [Israeli] letter was signed by Ben-Gurion.”
The Prime Minister’s spokesperson did not give a reason for the delay. But Dr. Amnon Ramon, a Hebrew University and Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies expert on local Christians, said that his impression was that the delay was caused by bureaucracy and lack of priority. In researching his 2012 book, “Christians and Christianity in the Jewish State” (in Hebrew, published by the JIIS), he found that Israel’s relations with Christians and church institutions are among the lowest priorities in policy and practice of the local and national government bodies, he said.
While Ramon works on improving government relations with Christians, he also encourages Christians, including Armenians, not to allow caution to stop them from lobbying for their own needs. Christians “have to look at the Israeli side, the Palestinian side, be very cautious, and sometimes this leads them to inaction.”
Old City Armenians live more closely with the Palestinians and say their relations with them are better than with official Israel or some of their Jewish neighbors. Bishop Aris Shirvanian says that “they don’t spit on us,” referring to a phenomenon sometimes encountered by Christian clergy in the Old City.
“We have no legal problems with them,” said Bishop Aris Shirvanian. But the Palestinians have also not recognized the Armenian genocide. “The whole of the Islamic countries do not recognize the genocide because Turks are Muslims,” he said.
Being Christian in Jerusalem is complicated, he added. “When you are dealing with two sides [Israelis and Palestinians], you have to not take one side against the other.”
First to adopt Christianity
Armenians have a long, continuous presence in the city, from at least the fourth century, after Armenia was the first nation in 301 C.E. to adopt Christianity as its official faith, said Yoav Loeff, a Hebrew University teacher of Armenian language and history.
Until World War I, most of the Armenians here were monks or other church people. After the war, the numbers in Jerusalem grew, as Armenians fled the genocide and developed a vibrant lay community here. There were also artisans who came to the city in 1919 under the patronage of the British Mandate to renovate the vividly decorated ceramic tiles on the Dome of the Rock. Their craft of hand-painting tiles and ceramics deeply influenced Jerusalem’s artistic heritage. This can be seen still today on signs and architectural facades, and in the pottery in Israeli and Palestinian homes. The patriarchate also opened a photography studio here in the 1850s, and the period portraits done by some of its photographers are still renowned.
Until the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, local Armenians lived mostly in Jerusalem, with some in Haifa, Jaffa, Lod, Ramle and Ramallah too, numbering about 25,000 in total, Manougian says. While the majority fled the war to surrounding areas − Ramallah, Jordan, Lebanon − a few thousand ended up in the Old City’s Armenian Quarter. But with growing economic and political tensions and lack of opportunities, most left over the years.
There are no official statistics, but historians estimate that there are some 3,000 people of Armenian descent in Israel, but most do not identify with the community, coming from the former Soviet Union and having married Jews.
The community’s center of life today is in the Armenian Quarter, which has an elementary school, middle school, high school, a seminary, the 12th-century St. James Cathedral, the Church of the Holy Archangels, and the Armenian manuscript library. But barely 400 Armenians live there now, down from around 1,500 in 1967, said Manougian.
“I’m afraid that if things go on like this, there won’t be any Christians left in this country,” he said, alluding to the wider phenomenon of an ongoing exodus of Christians of all denominations from the Holy Land. The city and state are not helping Armenians to flourish, he added. “Nobody knows anything about Armenia or Armenians … It’s not even on the list of their [concerns]. We don’t belong to the community − they don’t [accept] us as members. We are third-class citizens.”
Fueling this feeling are occasional spitting incidents. On June 19, for example, an Orthodox Jewish man spat at the feet of patriarch Manougian, during a procession of senior church clergy as they walked toward the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Bishop Shirvanian, who was present, said that such spitting incidents have declined during the past year, but “you never know when it will happen while walking down the street …. Most Jews are respectful, but some of the ultra-Orthodox are obstinately spitting.”
A spokesperson for the Jerusalem police spokesperson said that it received two spitting complaints from the Armenians this year. A 16-year-old and an adult were both arrested and held for several hours. “We only know about it if a complaint is filed;” added the spokesperson. “We always offer [church] processions a police escort, because of this problem.”
Freedom of movement in and out of the Old City is also unpredictable. Nestled inside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, the Armenian Quarter relies on the Jaffa Gate for access to the rest of the city.
But the city closes the gate to vehicular traffic for several hours at a time on more than 40 days a year, during large events like the recent light festival and car races, church officials say. On June 16, the Latin Patriarchate issued a statement on behalf of Old City residents, pilgrims, churches and patriarchates, which said that Jaffa Gate provides “the only access to our patriarchates, churches and convents. Instead of finding solutions to these interruptions that cause great inconvenience and disruption, the situation has gone from bad to worse.”
In recent weeks, Manougian said he had to get a police permit to travel through Jaffa Gate on the Feast of Ascension, cancel plans to attend an event at a Tel Aviv embassy, and console pilgrims denied access to the Old City holy sites, because of closures. The municipality, he said, “should have called the heads of the communities and asked them, ‘What do you think?’ Instead, they just announce and do it.”
A municipal spokesperson said that access is closed to residential vehicles only during certain hours announced in advance, during certain city festivals − such as the two days of the Formula One events and the nine days of the recent light festival. Additionally, there are sometimes temporary closures of Old City Gates on holy days of the city’s various religious groups. At those times, he said, residents with cars can use different gates.
In dealing with the Israel’s Interior Ministry, too, a frustrated patriarchate has to wait “months, or years,” says Manougian, to get visas to bring Armenians to study or teach at the quarter’s schools and seminary. Priests ordained for life to serve the Jerusalem patriarchate who do get visas find themselves having to return yearly to the Interior Ministry to renew them. Father Pakrad Derjekian, a patriarchate priest for 32 years, says that when he applied for Jerusalem residency, he was told that he had been living in the city for so many years on visas with no problem, so he should continue. Clerics are “most of the time refused for Jerusalem residency,” he said. “So we stopped applying.”
Christians of all denominations have problems getting visas to study and teach here, and those who have long-term assignments have trouble getting Jerusalem residency, confirmed Christianity researcher Yisca Harani.
There are even “Christian hospital directors and staff who dedicate their entire life to charity in state-recognized health institutions [who] are no more than temporary visa holders,” she said.
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur, who attended Manougian’s June 4 inauguration, said that she doesn’t think non-resident visa procedures for the capital are stricter than in other countries. Tsur says she considers improving dialogue between Jerusalem’s communities an important part of her job. A policeman was appointed liaison between Old City Christians and Muslims and the force, and there is also a liaison in the mayor’s office for minority communities, she said.
Tsur denied that City Hall sidelines the community. The mayor’s office meets often with Armenians, includes them in events, such as the recent “Green Pilgrimage Symposium,” and assists them with projects, she said.
However, she says, when it comes to closing certain thoroughfares during festivals that tens of thousands of people will enjoy, “you can’t please everyone all the time.”
“Of all the Christian communities in Jerusalem, the relationship of the municipality with the Armenian one is extremely positive,” Tsur says. “Their contributions to the city are immense.”
The Hebrew University’s Amnon Ramon says that while Israel does have many bodies dealing with Christians − police, Interior Ministry, Foreign Ministry, municipality − he doesn’t think the authorities show sufficient understanding in the way they serve the Christian communities. Israel, he says, ends up sidelining them for complex reasons: ignorance and lack of information, a memory of poor Jewish-Christian relations historically, ultra-Orthodox influence, the absence of a single body to coordinate Christian concerns, and especially a national agenda already overburdened with security, social and economic problems.
To help improve the situation, Ramon and other researchers and organizations like the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, an NGO, bring members of Israeli state and city factions to meet Christians; he sees the benefits as being mutual.
Reflecting on Israel’s relationship with Christians in general and Armenians in particular, Manougian shrugs.
“I don’t know what [Israel] thinks. I feel that they could care less about minorities. Maybe in the back of their minds they are trying to diminish our numbers so there won’t be Armenians. Maybe? I don’t know.”
Asked to sum up in one word how Armenians here feel, Manougian replies, “unimportant.”
The Hebrew University’s Yoav Loeff, who is close to the Armenian community, speculated that, for starters, “If Israel would recognize the genocide, Armenians would feel better, because it’s the right thing to do from the moral point of view.”