Along the narrow stone-covered streets, winding alleyways and ancient chapels inside Jerusalem’s walled city, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world sets out to observe a sacred rite, just as it has for the past 1,700 years. The procession of the Brotherhood of St. James, a monastic order of the Armenian Apostolic Church, solemnly marches past the gates of the Old City on its way to a fountain known as St. Philip’s Spring. Beneath a Roman apse, the clergy gather before the very same pool of water in which it is believed the apostle Philip baptized an envoy of the Queen of Ethiopia as recounted in the New Testament, one of the seminal moments in the spread of Christianity throughout the world.
On this day, however, the public ceremony is also intended to convey a clear message. “This property belongs to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem,” declared Father Baret Yeretsian, head of the Patriarchate’s real estate office. “This is why we are coming here, to perform the services, to keep the tradition alive and to make sure history will stay intact.”
In a divided city in which every parcel of land is highly coveted and fiercely contested, such vigilance is not unfounded. According to the municipality of Jerusalem, St. Philip’s Spring and the vast expanse of land surrounding it hold archeological value and thus fall under the jurisdiction of the municipality. Under an agreement between the Jerusalem Development Authority, the Israel Antiquities Authority, and Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority, and over the objections of the Armenian Patriarch, more than half of the church’s 53 acres of land were appropriated by the municipality and declared part of the Jerusalem Park, which surrounds much of the city.
Although the Mayor of Jerusalem and Israeli government officials stood beside members of the Armenian Patriarchate during the official ceremony to re-open the newly renovated spring, coverage of the event in the Israeli media made scant mention of the long-held Armenian ownership of the entire property. There was also no mention that remnants of an ancient Armenian church were recently unearthed by Israeli archeologists.
This recent appropriation of the biblically significant spring belonging to the Armenian Patriarchate is, at best, one more chapter in a decades-long saga of marginalization of the Armenian presence in Jerusalem. At worst, it is a cautionary tale as to what is at stake for the Armenian nation should this insidious trend continue.
What’s at stake
Situated between Jaffa and Zion Gates in the southwest corner of the walled Old City, adjacent to the Wailing Wall and the Al-Aqsa mosque, the Armenian Quarter occupies one-sixth of the city’s 220 acres of land, equivalent to one quarter of a city divided along religious, cultural and historical lines. This disproportionately large area, compared with Catholic, Muslim and Jewish Quarters, has allowed the Armenian community to occupy a unique and enviable position.
This is largely due to the fact that the Armenian Patriarchate is home to some of the most venerated religious real estate and priceless antiquities in the world. This includes the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest place in Christianity where it is believed Jesus was crucified and resurrected. The heart of the community is the Armenian Patriarchate, located within the 12th Century Armenian Monastery of St. James, known as the St. James Cathedral, a repository of one-of-a-kind liturgical objects and artistic treasures, dubbed the “treasure chest” of the Old City.
The Patriarchate also bears title to the Monastery of the Holy Archangels, the St. Thoros Church, Sts. Tarkmanchats High School, the Armenian Theological Seminary, the Gulbenkian Library, the Mardigian Museum, the Jinishian Clinic, a bookstore, and the oldest and still operating printing press in the Holy Land. “The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem is one of the richest and probably most significant living Armenian institutions in the world. The Patriarchate is the depository and custodian of an enormous religious and cultural heritage,” observed Hratch Tchilingirian, Professor of Armenian Studies at Oxford University.
Over the centuries, Armenian pilgrims—from peasants to princesses—have donated religious and cultural arti-facts to the monastery. The Patriarchate holds the second-largest collection of ancient Armenian manuscripts in the world and remains an important center of Armenian learning and scholarship.
Renowned for their Christian faith and piety, the Armenians of Jerusalem are also recognized for many significant contributions to Christianity throughout history. Some of the oldest Christian hymns performed to this day are derived from 4th century traditions in the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches. Over the ensuing centuries, Armenian monks and pilgrims built several monasteries, becoming the founders of desert monasticism in Palestine. During the Crusades, the first three Queens of Jerusalem—Arda, Morphia and Melisende—were born to Armenian royal families.
Throughout the ages, the faithful carefully transcribed every sermon, compiling an extraordinary collection of holy scriptures that continue to provide scholars and theologians with an invaluable source for interpreting the Bible. The Patriarchate has also educated and trained thousands of clergymen who have not only served in the Holy Land but throughout the vast Armenian diaspora.
Lessons of history
Armenians living within the walls of the Armenian Quarter and beyond claim that the story of the St. Philip Spring is one more sign of the mounting challenges that have put their once vibrant presence in jeopardy. However, to assess the extent of these challenges for the global Armenian identity, one is reminded of similar crisis points over two millennia of conflict and conquest, persecution and hardship. At virtually each point, the Armenians of Jerusalem prevailed, successfully preserving a continuous and unshakeable presence in the Holy Land.
For example, when other religious leaders fled foreign conquest during the Byzantine era, the Armenian Patriarch stood steadfast, much to the admiration from other Christian sects and Muslim leaders, including the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, Saladin, whose forces vanquished the Crusaders in 12th century Palestine. “The Byzantine presence in Jerusalem was just as much Armenian as it was Byzantine,” affirms historian Abraham Terian, Professor Emeritus of Armen-ian Theology at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary.
Community at a crossroads
Over the past seventy years, however, the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict and Israeli government policies aimed at expanding Jewish territory led to a gradual economic decline, rising unemployment and lack of security in the community. As a result, a steady stream of Armenians over the years has migrated to more secure and prosperous countries, including Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States, thereby threatening the viability of the Armenian Quarter.
Migration has taken a visible toll on the community. Factories and businesses once owned by Armenians have long since disappeared. Once thriving social clubs sit practically empty and are open for only a few hours a day. Young Armenians have very little prospects of building successful careers and raising a family if they remain. Even finding an Armenian spouse is problematic. Under Israeli law, non-Jews living in neighboring Arab countries are prohibited from immigrating to Israel, thereby severely limiting the potential for marriage partners among an already small pool. Isolated from their fellow Armenians in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, the Armenian community of Jerusalem has witnessed increasing rates of intermarriage with Christian Arabs. At the St. Tarkmanchats school, nearly a third of the students are Arab-Armenians.
“Walking through the streets of the Old City, breathing the air, you are just mesmerized and humbled by all the history before you,” says Vartan Abdo, the founder and director of The Armenian Radio Hour of New Jersey and Parev-TV. Born and raised in Jaffa before moving to the United States, Abdo says returning to Jerusalem yields mixed emotions. Inside many of the Armenian homes he visited, he says he was surprised to hear how much Hebrew and Arabic were spoken. “It is very sad to see that we are losing our beautiful language,” he lamented. “And the community is lacking the necessary number of qualified teachers and resources to do much about it.”
Armenians living in Jerusalem are also constrained by their lack of official status. Since the annexation of Arab East Jerusalem (which includes the Old City), Armenians are designated only as permanent residents. They are prohibited from accessing citizenship and from obtaining passports that are reserved for their Jewish neighbors. Instead they are issued residency permits or travel documents, despite being born in Jerusalem. The lack of official citizenship status leaves them at the mercy of the Israeli bureaucracy, which has in the past revoked permits or refused to grant re-entry to those who have emigrated.
Although the Patriarchate is the guarantor of the Armenian presence in the Holy Land, it neither has the mandate nor the capacity to maintain a vital lay community. Its primary mission is the custodianship of the Holy Places and the administration of the patriarchate to fulfill that responsibility. It requires skilled leadership and diplomacy, along with human and financial resources. “This is not an easy task by any means,” says Prof. Tchilingirian, who was born and raised in Jerusalem. However, he notes, “over the last 800 years, the Patriarchate has dealt with many rulers, empires, states and governments and has seen them come and go. As such, it has deep institutional experience and knowledge of the past.”
One of the Patriarchate’s more important responsibilities is to preserve the invaluable treasures and sacred objects within its walls. Necessary renovations such as the current work to restore the Mardigian Museum, require both resources and outside expertise. In particular, there are long-standing concerns about the condition of the priceless Armenian manuscripts housed in the St. Thoros Church, which have suffered from neglect and possible moisture from the well below the church.
At the same time, the Patriarchate is facing an onslaught of outside pressure, including aggressive property acquisition and harassment by hardline Jewish settlers and organizations determined to increase the Jewish presence in the Old City. In February, the Jerusalem City Council issued an unprecedented demand for nearly $200 million in taxes from the Armenian, Greek and Roman Catholic churches, despite a long-held tradition exempting religious institutions from paying tax. In protest, the denominations closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for three days, during which thousands of Christian pilgrims were locked out. The closure was lifted after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to suspend the demand for taxes while establishing a committee to study the issue. However, the dispute is far from resolved.
The Churches are also waging a battle against a proposed law that would allow the Israeli government to expropriate any church lands sold or leased on the commercial market. While Netanyahu temporarily suspended the draft legislation in the spring, the Israeli parliament is now reconsidering the bill that has the support of 40 members of the Knesset.
According to Church leaders, both the proposed law and demand to pay taxes are part of a well-established pattern of targeting Christians and their lands. They say their clergy are increasingly being harassed and intimidated by militant Jewish settlers. Armenian priests, like their Greek counterparts, have been verbally abused and spat at while church property continues to be vandalized. The Greek Patriarch, Theophilos III, recently told The Guardian newspaper: “We have witnessed the desecration and vandalism of an unprecedented number of churches and holy sites and receive growing numbers of reports from priests and local worshippers who have been assaulted and attacked. Where the authorities are concerned, this behavior goes largely unchecked and unpunished.”
Amidst growing concern the Christian presence in Jerusalem is gradually being eroded—collateral damage in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians—Armenians in Jerusalem are worried that without a vital community to defend itself, they stand to lose more precious territory, and with it, their Armenian heritage.
The present Patriarch, Nourhan Manougian, along with Pope Francis and other Christian leaders, has called for a commitment to maintain the Status Quo, based on a mid-nineteenth century agreement that protects and guarantees access to the holy sites in Jerusalem and elsewhere. The agreement also allows Christians to live and worship in peace despite ongoing conflicts.
“In the coming months and years, the situation of the Armenians in Jerusalem and the Patriarchate in particular might become even more critical, especially in view of the virtual collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and increasingly, unilateral steps taken by the sides on the conflict,” says Prof. Tchilingirian.
Rallying behind Jerusalem
While the Patriarchate has grown accustomed over the centuries to operating independently, it will need the active support of the Armenian Church, government, and diaspora around the world to overcome the myriad challenges ahead. The Patriarchate’s few dozen members are stretched thin providing religious services in the Holy Places. Its supporters are urging the Patriarch to seek reinforcements. Given that the institution cannot recruit from the Arab world, the majority of the clergy come from Armenia. As used by the Franciscan Order of Monks, a sign-up sheet for clergy around the world to serve a year or two in Jerusalem would attract talented priests, especially from Europe and North America. The help would relieve the burden on the current clergy and their presence.
Outside of the homeland, Armenian Jerusalem is inarguably the best advertisement to the world for our ancient culture. Every year over 3.5 million visitors to Israel are exposed to the marvels of Armenian art, religion and culture. This bestows an incalculable prestige upon a country of just 3 million people.
Outside of the homeland, Armenian Jerusalem is inarguably the best advertisement for our ancient culture. Every year 3.5 million visitors to Israel are exposed to the marvels of Armenian art, religion and culture.
For its part, there is considerably more the Armenian government could do to take advantage of this golden opportunity to promote its culture and values on a global stage. In addition to financial support to help the Patriarchate maintain and preserve its historic real estate and invaluable collection of manuscripts and artifacts, it could also provide diplomatic and legal expertise to protect the legal status of the Patriarchate. That status is guaranteed by international conventions such as the Paris Peace Conference of 1856, the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. As one of the three custodians of the Holy Places, along with the Greeks and Franciscans, the Armenian Patriarchate holds a semi-diplomatic status with the election of its Patriarch being affirmed by the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian authorities. Armenia could play a vital role in protecting and even enhancing the interests of the Armenian Patriarchate in inter-state relations and in the international arena.
For centuries, the global Armenian diaspora has supported the Patriarchate of Jerusalem with financial contributions and gifts. There is also, however, a wealth of legal, political, archeological, financial, and art history expertise available to help the Patriarchate maximize the value of its real estate, museums and libraries. Among many gains, the potential to greatly increase tourism to the Armenian Quarter is evident.
If more Armenian diasporan organizations sponsored pilgrimages and tours—not once every few years but on a regular basis—it would send a powerful message to the Israeli government that Armenians in the rest of the world have not forgotten this precious community. As Abraham Terian has argued, “the fact that this long-standing Armenian community, the oldest, earliest and most important diaspora, has reached this far, means that it is incumbent upon all diasporan Armenians to rally behind Jerusalem because as Jerusalem goes, so goes the rest.”
The sentiment is shared by many throughout the Armenian Quarter and among its former residents in the diaspora. “Many Armenians fail to realize or have forgotten that we have used the resources of the Patriarchate and benefitted from its unconditional support over the years, but in return we did not give anything back,” echoed Vartan Abdo. “It is very important for the small community that remains to see more Armenians in the diaspora visit and know that they are valued. And the Israeli government takes note.”
A pillar of Armenian civilization that has stood for nearly 1,700 years, the Armenian community of Jerusalem is a source of great pride for Armenians around the world. Over the centuries it has faithfully nurtured and preserved Armenia’s ancient Christian identity, helped the nation recover from the major setbacks and served as a vital stepping-stone for diasporan communities from Argentina to Australia. All Armenians have a vested interest in the preservation of this precious heritage. It is incumbent upon each and every one of us to lay claim to this crown jewel to ensure it continues to shine its light upon the world.
The Special Status of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem
The Brotherhood of the Order of St. James dates back to the 7th century, when the Armenian presence in the Holy City was cemented with the appointment of the first Armenian bishop, later to bear the title of Patriarch. Over the centuries, successive ruling powers of the Holy Land have granted the Patriarchate certain rights and responsibilities, ultimately resulting in it holding a special status known in Eastern Orthodox tradition as autocephalous. This means that the Patriarchate is not subject to the authority of an external higher-ranking patriarch or archbishop.
At the same time, the Patriarchate, as a member of the Supreme Spiritual Council, the ecclesiastical governing body of the Armenian Apostolic Church presided over by the Catholicos of All Armenians, practices the same spiritual tenets and religious doctrines as the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin in Armenia. Recently, His Holiness Catholicos Karekin II, who has visited the Patriarchate on multiple occasions, spoke to its significance in the context of Armenian religious identity and heritage preservation.
“The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem and St. James Brotherhood have for centuries carried out the mission of maintaining the Holy Sites and preserving the Armenian Christian identity in the heart of the Middle East.” His Holiness also described the connection between Jerusalem and Etchmiadzin as interwoven through their spiritual mystery and significance. “Etchmiadzin stands at the roots of our biblical heritage, extending its gaze from Mt. Ararat towards Jerusalem at Mount Zion, the City of God. Both are holy ground, both sanctified by sacred tradition, and both spiritual reflections of Divine presence. Just as it has throughout the centuries, Holy Etchmiadzin continues to support the unique mission of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. All Armenians of faith are encouraged to find ways to help ensure the perpetual Armenian presence in the center of the Christian world.”
Jerusalem: The First Armenian Diaspora
The origins of Jerusalem’s Armenian community date to the early centuries of the Common Era, when Armen-ian administrators, merchants and artisans from historical Armenia reached Palestine during Roman times. By 355 A.D., after Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion, Armenian pilgrims began establishing permanent roots in what is today the oldest living Armenian community outside the homeland.
The Armenian community of Jerusalem played a crucial role when it provided a haven for thousands of Armenian refugees and orphans after the 1915 Genocide. “When we were deprived of the cradle of our culture, Jerusalem was the place where much of that cradle was maintained when it was lost in historic Armenia,” explains Prof. Terian, an authority on the Armenian presence in Jerusalem.
In the decades that followed, the Patriarchate provided spiritual nourishment while gradually establishing services to tend to the long-term needs of the lay community, including a school in 1929 to accommodate the growing number of youth.
During the Arab-Israeli wars beginning in the 1940s, thousands more Armenian refugees sought sanctuary in the Armenian Quarter. At its peak, the community was housed free of charge by the Patriarchate. Unlike conventional monasteries, lay people live alongside the monks in the 28-acre St. James Monastery. They participate in sports clubs, scouts, and social and cultural organizations such as Homenetmen, Hoyechmen and Paresirats.
Banner photo by Garo Nalbandian