Torn between two worlds and an uncertain future

The tomb of Armenian Patriarch Abraham who reigned during the time of Saladin. Photo by Gray Beltran.

By Gray Beltran

Jerusalem – On a Friday afternoon in Jerusalem’s Old City, in between the Muslim prayers at al-Aqsa and the sundown of the Jewish Sabbath, the sound of chanting rises from St. James Cathedral in the Old City’s Armenian Quarter. Inside the cathedral about 45 seminarians dressed in black robes sing during the vespers ceremony. For every ordinary singing voice, there is an angelic counterpart that swells through the cathedral.

The church is crowded with people but they are not necessarily Armenians and certainly not locals. Instead, the cathedral is filled with onlookers from all over the world, tourists captivated by the massive paintings blanketing the walls and the hundreds of lanterns suspended from the ceiling. The lanterns were fashioned by hand in Armenian villages and brought to Jerusalem in the 15th century. None of the villages exist today.

“Here in the Armenian Quarter, we are like an Armenian village. The church is the center,” said the Rev. Fr. Goossan Aljanian, the director of liturgical chanting at the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

But the future of this Armenian village is in jeopardy. Though the Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back at least 1,500 years, few Armenians are left. Today, about 500 Armenians live in the Armenian Quarter. More than 20,000 Armenians lived in Jerusalem before the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The current batch of seminarians are not from Israel or the West Bank; they are from Armenia.

At the same time, the Armenian Quarter has seen itself transformed into a kind of bargaining chip between the Israelis and Palestinians. In January, Al-Jazeera released documents that revealed that the Palestinian Authority had been willing to give up any claim to the Armenian and Jewish Quarters during negotiations with Israel. The documents, known as the Palestine Papers, suggested that the Palestinian leadership saw the Armenians as expendable.

In response to the revelations, PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced that the Armenian Quarter belonged to Palestinians, the Jerusalem Post reported. Abbas had branded Al-Jazeera’s reports as “lies and distortions” in a previous statement.

“The Palestinian leadership sticks to its position that considers the Armenian Quarter an integral part of east Jerusalem, the capital of the independent Palestinian state,” Abbas was quoted as saying.

The controversy echoes an earlier chapter in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over Jerusalem. After the Camp David negotiations in 2000, then-PA Chairman Yasser Arafat denied reports that he had agreed to a similar deal in which Israel would acquire the Armenian Quarter, telling a Palestinian newspaper, “The Armenian quarter belongs to us. We and Armenians are one people.”

When it comes to dividing Jerusalem, Armenians who live here seem reluctant to take sides. In the religious and political conflict that defines the Holy Land, Jerusalem’s Armenians may have nothing to gain and everything to lose.

“Armenians cannot get involved. This is an issue between Israelis and Palestinians,” said Tsolak Momjian, the Consul for the Republic of Armenia in Jerusalem. “It’s out of the control of the Armenian Patriarchate.”

After Abbas’ statement, a representative of the Armenian Patriarchate told an Armenian news website that the church was satisfied with the PA president’s affirmation.

If Jerusalem is divided between Israel and a Palestinian state, the Armenian Patriarchate fears the consequences of ending up on the Israeli side. If the Armenian Quarter is cut off from the Muslim and Christian Quarters, Armenians might lose their claim to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s tomb. There is also concern that the Jewish Quarter, which shares a wall with the Armenian Quarter, will expand as the number of Jews in the Old City continues to grow while the Armenian population withers. Young ultra-Orthodox Jews sometimes spit on Armenian priests and other Christian clergy inside the Old City.

While he sits in his father’s ceramic shop painting decorations onto pottery, Peter Lepejian, 33, watches many Orthodox Jews pass through the Armenian Quarter, which, despite its name, comprises only one-sixth of the Old City. The Orthodox Jews are likely on their way to or from the Western Wall.

Vic Lepejian, Peter’s father, opened his shop in 1975 and has renovated some of the paintings inside the cathedral. Peter’s grandparents came to the Holy Land in the 1930s from Southern Turkey. They lived in Jaffa before coming to Jerusalem after the 1948 war.

Peter Lepejian learned how to draw and paint from his father and has been working with him for 15 years. Ceramics have a long history in the Armenian Quarter and endure as a popular item for tourists. For young Armenians who can’t work in the family business, few opportunities exist in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas.

Young Armenians who learn Hebrew can work in Jewish businesses, where there are more opportunities and better benefits than in the tourist trade, but Lepejian says, they can’t be promoted very high if they aren’t Jewish. Palestinian employers, on the other hand, may be willing to promote Armenians but they don’t offer the same benefits. Israeli soldiers sometimes hassle Armenians if they’re traveling back and forth across checkpoints since Armenians, like the Arabs of East Jerusalem, are both non-citizens and non-Jews.

Peter Lepejian’s brother left Jerusalem to attend school in Texas and now works as an engineer in California.

“If not for this shop, I would have left when I finished school,” said Lepejian.

In 2008, in an effort to revitalize the Armenian Quarter, Bedross Der Matossian and Mary Hoogasian co-founded a non-profit organization named Save the ArQ. Matossian grew up in Jerusalem but left in 2001 to continue his studies at Columbia University. He now teaches history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, specializing in the Middle East. Hoogasian, an Armenian American, became fascinated with the Armenian Quarter while studying for a master’s degree in Beirut, which also has an Armenian community.

Hoogasian was amazed there wasn’t already a non-profit organization that raised money for Jerusalem’s Armenian community. Using donations from Armenian Americans, many non-profits have been started to instead aid the Republic of Armenia, which gained its independence in 1991, a few years after suffering a massive earthquake.

“Most of the Armenian communities have been helping Armenia itself. They’re receiving little help from the diaspora in Jerusalem,” said Matossian.

Save the ArQ holds fundraisers in the United States while also trying to raise awareness about the Armenian Quarter’s situation among Armenian Americans.

“Once we start educating people it will become a priority,” said Hoogasian.

Last October, Save the ArQ held a fundraiser in Chicago in which prominent artist Michael Aram donated a metal sculpture he had fashioned. The bronze sculpture was Aram’s interpretation of an Armenian cross, one that was made to resemble an apricot tree.

With the money it’s raised so far, Save the ArQ has purchased lab equipment for science classes at the Armenian school in Jerusalem. Matossian and Hoogasian want to improve the Armenian Quarter’s educational standards before moving on to bigger projects, such as creating more housing.

“The major crisis within the Armenian Quarter is the housing crisis. That’s the long-term goal of Save the ArQ,” said Matossian.

Young Armenian couples have difficulty finding housing in the Armenian Quarter. Rents are high and Armenians have limited incomes. At the same time, Israel doesn’t grant Armenians permits to build new structures. The Armenian Patriarchate owns most of the property within the quarter and Armenians have had to depend on the church to provide them with housing.

“If you don’t have a community what point is the church?” said Hoogasian.

Though some Armenian families can trace their origins in Jerusalem back centuries, the community didn’t really become sizeable until 1915, when thousands of Armenians fled massacres in Ottoman Turkey and came to the Holy Land. Buildings that had housed Armenian pilgrims became permanent dwellings for refugees. Whether or not the Armenian community of Jerusalem endures, the church itself will likely survive just as it has for more than a millennium.

“Jesus lived and was crucified here. We have an obligation to stay here,” said Aljanian, the priest.

“We have to carry our crosses.”

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