Once in a while we hear reports about the woes and problems faced by the dwindling Armenian community in Jerusalem, essentially because of the farfetched policies of the Israeli state. They do not seem to be exaggerated. A wonderful sample was Alistair Macdonald's dispatch for Reuters, dated June 29, 2010. Some paragraphs from the article are worthy to be quoted:
"Now the Armenians in Jerusalem itself, many descended from refugees, fear their own 1,500-year-old Christian presence may disappear, too. Their society and extensive landholdings risk becoming collateral damage in a demographic conflict for land and power in the holy city between Israel and the Palestinians.
'It's a dying community. Only the church holds us together,' lamented 97-year-old Arshalouys Zakarian, as she sat with family and friends in her garden near St. James's Armenian cathedral.
. . . Over tea, Zakarian's guests, some living locally, others back on visits from overseas, joined in tales of children gone abroad in search of jobs and of struggles, often in vain, with Israeli bureaucracy to retain rights to come back home to live.
'For the first time in our history, we are not sure we can stay, after 1,500 years,' concluded one man, now working for the Armenian church after a career spent in the United States. His daughter, born here, can visit, but may no longer live here.
. . . 'The withdrawing of ID cards is becoming very serious,' said historian George Hintlian, a former Patriarchate secretary. Five local-born Armenians lost residence rights last month, he added.
Non-Jews, a third of today's 750,000 population in greater Jerusalem, have had residence rights but not citizenship since Israel seized the Arab east, including the Old City, from Jordan in 1967. Israel, which promotes Jewish immigration, says it is not obliged to grant re-entry to other residents who emigrate.
It says it respects the access of other faiths to Jerusalem and denies any policy to discriminate or to push non-Jews out. But the Armenians see double standards and fear for their land.
. . . But while many Jews had sympathy for a people whose history of dispersal and suffering has echoes of their own, Armenians are wary of the Israeli state: 'For the private Israeli, we are full-time genocide survivors,' Hintlian said. "But for the Israeli bureaucracy, we are full-time Palestinians' (the italics are ours. V.M.).
Many fear territorial designs on their Quarter, which covers a sixth of the square kilometer (230 acres) inside the walls but houses only a small fraction of the Old City's 40,000 people. It lies next to the Jewish Quarter, ravaged under Jordanian rule after 1948. Israelis have rebuilt and expanded it since 1967.
. . The Armenian Church has parity at Jerusalem's Christian holy places with the much bigger Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches, 6,000 of whose Palestinian Arab adherents live in the Christian Quarter. Its history, income from local rents and gifts from the Diaspora, should assure the Church's future here. But the lay community surrounding it does question whether future generations will be here; residents say Armenians feel disadvantaged in getting work with Jewish or Arab employers and so move abroad and then face Israeli refusal to allow them back.
'It's a demographic struggle,' said Hintlian, as he strolled the quiet courtyards that distinguish the Quarter from the crowded lanes typical of the rest of the Old City. 'The basic struggle is to have numbers,' he added. 'Diplomats say, 'Look, the Armenians have a lot of space and very few people...'.'
. . . The end of Communism in Armenia has thrown a lifeline to the church, bringing a supply of novices from the ex-Soviet state, said Archbishop Nourhan Manoogian, who himself came from Syria just before the 1967 war. But having returned now from 20 years abroad, he too faces a problem renewing his residence permit. "What kind of freedom of religion is there?" he asked."
This report was the latest until past week. Below is our English translation of a report by Artem Chernomoryan for the Armenian version of Radio Liberty, dated September 7, 2010 (see the Armenian original in azatutyun.am):
"The seven-year-old ongoing conflict between the City Hall of Jerusalem, the Jewish residents of the German Quarter and the Armenian Patriarchate on the fate of the Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in Jerusalem is marking new developments.
By resolution of the City Hall, a multi-storied hotel complex will be built near the church. According to the same resolution, the Armenian church, which in this way will be left in the courtyard of the hotel complex, will be allocated to the Jewish population as a community center (the italics are ours. V.M.).
The resolution of the City Hall has not been well received either by the Armenian Patriarchate or by the inhabitants of the commune. On Sunday night [September 5], some 300 citizens (250 Jews and 50 Armenians), headed by representatives of the commune and the Armenian Patriarchate, gathered in the courtyard of the church to collect signatures against the resolution of the City Hall.
'This gathering is very important. A more important protest is expected for Thursday, September 16 --said Rev. Fr. Goriun Baghdasarian, representative of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in a dialogue with Radio Liberty --. A final resolution must be given on the construction of the hotel. Indeed, the future status of our church will also be decided at that time.'
If the actions of protest did not give result, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem does not preclude the alternative of appealing in the courts the resolution of turning the church of St. Gregory the Illuminator into a community center."
There is not much to add to these two eloquent reports. But one final reflection seems to be in order. Do you know a country in the Middle East that for the past 90 years has systematically turned churches into anything else but... a church? (Incidentally, that country has been a staunch ally of Israel and viceversa until recent times). Yes, you do. Is the state of Israel or any of its local representatives willing to follow the example of that country?...