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‘Living Here Is Complicated’

Jerusalem’s Armenians maintain their identity

A happy cacophony of Arabic, Armenian, English and Hebrew floats through the colorful hallways of the Sts. Tarkmanchatz Armenian School of Jerusalem, where 120 students spend four periods a day, every day, intensively learning the languages — in addition to math, science and Armenian history.

That the school, the pride of Jerusalem’s tiny Armenian Christian community, places such an emphasis on language skills is a matter of necessity, says Mihran Der Matossian, vice principal.

“Our students learn Armenian because it is our national language and our identity. Students take the British matriculation exams, so they need to know English. And they learn Hebrew and Arabic on a high level because we live among Israelis and Palestinians and it is difficult to mingle and find a job without these languages,” Mr. Der Matossian says.

For Jerusalem’s Armenian Christians, maintaining their rich Armenian heritage, where the dominant Israeli and Palestinian cultures collide, is a formidable task. This challenge has increased of late as the number of Armenians, as with those of other local Christian communities, has been decimated by decades of emigration.

Of the world’s estimated 10 million Armenians, an estimated 600,000 live in the Middle East — not including up to a million Turks who conceal their Armenian origins and their Christian faith. Prior to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the Armenian community in what was known as British Mandate Palestine included up to 15,000 people. Fewer than 3,000 remain, with about a thousand living in the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem and the rest in Bethlehem, Haifa, Jaffa, Ramallah and Ramleh, where, according to church sources, viable communities have evolved around the nucleus of Armenian culture — a church or monastery.

Today the vast majority of Armenians in Israel and Palestine are “Western Armenians,” that is, descendants of Armenians who hail from Anatolia, speak a dialect known as Western Armenian and have a long history in the region. Some have ancestors who survived the mass killings of Armenians perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I, and sought refuge in British-controlled Jerusalem. Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, they were joined by more than 1,500 “Eastern Armenians,” men and women from the former Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic who had married Soviet Jews and settled in Israel with their spouses.

Uniting this small flock is the head of the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Patriarch Nourhan, and the Brotherhood of St. James, a monastic community of the Armenian Apostolic patriarchate with some 60 members. Together with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, the Armenian patriarchate functions as a custodian of the major holy sites associated with the life of Christ, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Armenians have been associated with the Holy Land”s most sacred Christian sites since the fourth century, when pilgrims from the Armenian kingdom, the first state to declare Christianity its official religion in the year 301, traveled to the holy city of Jerusalem. Between the fourth and eighth centuries Armenians constructed and decorated some 70 monasteries, which housed priests and monks as well as pilgrims who continued to journey long after the Muslim Arab invasion in the seventh century.

Although there has been a continuous presence since, the Armenian community has never recovered from the first Arab-Israeli war. Many Armenians suffered the same losses as Arab Christians and Muslims, fleeing first to Lebanon or Jordan. From there, they left eventually for points west. Today, those who remain fear their children will do the same.

While the Armenian community’s elders encourage the younger generation to obtain a higher education, they acknowledge many of those who go abroad will be reluctant to return.

“A lot of my friends have left, mostly to Europe and the United States, and I doubt they’ll come back,” says Hasmig Kalaydjian, an Armenian teacher in her 20’s pursuing a degree at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Living here is complicated.”

“Once the young have experienced life abroad, it’s hard to come back,” acknowledges Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, the Armenian patriarchate’s director of ecumenical affairs.

“There is always the fear of another war.”

The shortage of affordable housing in Israel is another cause of emigration, and not just for Armenians. The patriarchate, which already houses more than 500 people in the Armenian Quarter compound, lacks the financial resources to help all those in need of housing — the patriarchate is largely dependent on the rental income it receives from its properties and support from the Armenian diaspora.

As with other churches in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, the Armenian patriarchate must secure visas for its foreign clergy and seminarians from Israel’s Interior Ministry. It can take months or even years to obtain a visa for a student or teacher from Armenia. Even priests who are permanently based in Israel must extend their visas once a year, Patriarch Nourhan of Jerusalem told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in January 2013.

Making matters worse: Christians have become targets of young ultra-Orthodox Jewish extremists, who sometimes spit on priests in the streets of the Old City.

“It’s a real problem,” says the Rev. Dirran Hagopian, a young priest, standing outside the Armenian Cathedral of Sts. James in Jerusalem. “Two days ago, I was with a group of pilgrims from Armenia when a yeshiva student spit on me. When a policeman arrived, he asked to see the spit.

“There’s no point in filing a complaint because we know nothing will be done.”

“They do it because they don’t get a proper education about Christians, and based on hatred of Christians due to Christian anti-Semitism,” says Rabbi Ron Kronish, founder of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, which has organized Christian-Jewish encounters and solidarity visits to various churches to combat the problem.

A police spokesman said the police act on every complaint, but that few have been filed.

“I’m afraid that if things go on like this, there won’t be any Christians left in this country,” the patriarch says. “Nobody knows anything about Armenia or Armenians.

“We don’t belong to the community — they don’t [accept] us as members. We are third-class citizens.”

Most Armenians tend to be more sanguine about the many challenges they face, finding solidarity in a deep sense of community. That feeling is especially strong in Jerusalem, where the majority of Armenians reside in the Old City’s Armenian Quarter, a picturesque neighborhood occupying a sixth of the city’s territory. Its high stone walls insulate them from the outside world, even before its massive iron gates shutter at 10 p.m.

Outside of approved organized tours, most of the quarter is off limits to visitors.

While community members work and shop outside the walls, they feel most at home within the quarter, which is a monastic compound owned by the patriarchate. Here, their children attend school and play soccer while adults socialize at community functions and pray at the 12th-century Cathedral of Sts. James, dedicated to the apostles James, “the brother of the Lord,” and James, the brother of John, the sons of Zebedee. According to tradition, the cathedral marks the site of the Council of Jerusalem (circa 50 A.D.).

The narrow road leading to the Armenian Quarter is lined with shops, where Armenian artisans create and sell high-quality ceramics valued by locals, pilgrims and tourists. Working alongside her husband in their ceramics store, Sonia Sandrouni says her children have been positively affected by the patriarchate’s efforts to instill pride in the younger generation.

“We have the school, which teaches Armenian history, language and culture,” she notes. “We have Armenian clubs for children and teenagers. I don’t know what we would do without them.”

But there are some problems even the church can’t solve, Mrs. Sandroni adds.

“Some leave the country to seek better opportunities and that concerns us a lot,” she explains. “So does the fact that although we want our kids to marry other Armenians, there aren’t enough young people for this to happen.”

Hasmig Kalaydjian, the teacher attending Hebrew University, agrees.

“We went to the same school and grew up as friends. We’re like sisters and brothers, so it’s difficult to think of the boys as future husbands.”

Archbishop Aris says that although the patriarchate makes efforts to bring together young people from the various communities for social gatherings, it is not always sufficient.

A “very small” number of intermarriages between Armenians and local Arab Christians from other denominations do occur, he says, but Western Armenians almost never marry non-Christians.

“We don’t try to convert people,” he says, “but if there is an intermarriage, we ask the non-Armenian to go through the process of connecting to the Armenian Apostolic Christian faith and sign a declaration that he or she is joining the church. Our goal is to keep Armenian faith and identity.”

“Intermarriage is one of the major issues we face,” explains an Armenian Jerusalemite speaking on condition of anonymity. “One of my daughters is engaged to an Arab Christian from Haifa. A second has a Russian Orthodox boyfriend.”

Some community members say the mother’s background often determines how children will be reared.

“When the mother is Armenian, she instills Armenian culture and values,” says Mihran Der Matossian, vice principal of the Sts. Tarkmanchatz Armenian School, which enrolls children whose parents are non-Armenian.

Fostering Armenian pride is more difficult in Haifa. A religiously diverse city in northern Israel, Haifa’s once bustling Armenian community nearly vanished soon after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

“The Armenian school that existed until 1948 closed and never reopened,” notes the Rev. Tirayr Hovakimian, pastor of Haifa’s only Armenian church, dedicated to St. Elijah. Without an Armenian school, the community’s 250 Israeli-born Western Armenians and more than 1,500 Soviet-born Eastern Armenians have no choice but to send their children to either Arab Christian or Jewish schools.

“Most children attend Arab schools because they’re Christian schools, but there are some who are married to Jewish women and more integrated into Israeli life,” Father Hovakimian says.

The threat of assimilation poses a real problem, the priest notes. “We are trying our best to help families stay Armenian, not to integrate into Jewish or Arab society.”

Toward this end, the old stone church runs a youth club three times a week in the evening. Here, the Armenian-born Father Hovakimian and older members of the community teach the youngsters basic, intermediate and advanced Armenian.

The pastor has also enlisted the community in the renovation of the church. Anonymous donations have funded repairs to the external staircase, air conditioning and heating systems, and the installation of a cross mosaic, created by community members. Yet, some degree of accommodation for local custom is unavoidable.

“Here, Sunday is a work day,” Father Hovakimian says. Accordingly, weekly liturgies are held on Saturday. Zaven Panoian says his family does its best to maintain its culture while integrating into Israeli society. The Panoians sent their daughter to a Hebrew-language Jewish school.

“My wife, who attended the Armenian school in Jaffa, doesn’t know Arabic all that well,” he says. However, he does not believe this has hindered her. “The Jewish school gave her the tools to function in Israel, where we live. I have cousins who went to Christian schools, and they have even more difficulty finding jobs.”

After his daughter graduated from high school, Mr. Panoian encouraged her to perform a year of Israeli National Service — an alternative to the military service Israeli Jews are required to complete, but Muslims and Christians are not.

“She’s a volunteer at our local hospital, Rambam Hospital,” Panoian says. “The experience is giving her life tools.” This also makes her eligible for a variety of government benefits.

Maro Zakarian is a Jerusalemite Armenian who met her Armenian-born husband during a multi-year stay in the United States. She ultimately moved back with her husband and daughter to be close to their families in the Armenian Quarter. She believes it’s possible to have a foot in more than one culture.

“Our community is very Westernized, and in some ways it’s easier to work on the Jewish side because of the social benefits, like universal health care and pensions,” Mrs. Zakarian says. “Every day a woman comes to the home of my elderly aunt and helps her.”

Mrs. Zakarian, who works at a Palestinian embroidery cooperative, says she is content with her life.

“This is our home; I feel comfortable here, even with the challenges,” she says. “This is our community; I attended the Armenian school. We are one big family.”

The only thing missing from Mrs. Zakarian’s day-to-day life is her daughter, who moved back to the United States to attend college. Her husband, Michael Zakarian, feels that Christians in the Holy Land are being squeezed from all sides. But Jerusalem, to him, is home.

“Jerusalem is where my great-great grandfather lived. When I go to the cemetery, I see generations of my family,” he says. In his view, to leave would be unthinkable.

“It is,” he concludes, “a matter of continuity.”

Jerusalem-based journalist Michele Chabin has written for USA TODAY, National Catholic Register, Jewish Journal and ONE.

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