Covering Sacred Ground Thu, 01 Sep 2011 21:31:55 +0000 en hourly 1 Hasidic radicals bellow down Tel Aviv’s streets Thu, 23 Jun 2011 11:44:03 +0000 Gray Beltran

Arye ben-Yitzchak, a Na Nach, dances on the roof of a Na Nach van. Photo by Benjamin Preston.

View the audio slideshow.

By Benjamin Preston

TEL AVIV — The monotonous din of traffic permeated the air on Tel Aviv’s Sheinkin Street on a recent Friday afternoon, when, suddenly, a large white cargo van whipped around the corner, blasting music from a pair of huge roof-mounted loudspeakers. A few people walking on the crowded sidewalks stopped to stare as five bearded young men wearing white-knit, tassel-topped yarmulkes leaped out, dancing to the thud of electronic bass beats. Some people smiled. Soldiers driving past waved out the windows and cheered. A cyclist cut through the group, her face set in a grimace. A man screamed above the din that his baby was sick.

It’s a scene increasingly common in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other Israeli cities where the loud, brightly painted Ford cargo vans associated with Israel’s hottest new Hasidic sect have become a recognizable sight. The vans are plastered with large Hebrew letters and larger-than-life stick-on portraits of a laughing, bearded old man in a fur hat, his arms cast jubilantly skyward. Religious-themed Hebrew techno tunes blast from the rooftop speakers.

The Bohemian clothing of the dancing young men seems unusual for Hasidic Jews. So does their belief that screaming, singing, and bellowing joyous prayer are the best ways to connect with God.

They are known as the Na Nach — a recently emerged subgroup of the 200-year-old Breslover Hasidic sect. Like other Breslover Hasidim, they follow the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a kabbalist mystic who lived 200 years ago in what is today Ukraine. More established Breslov groups were once seen as an eccentric, vaguely countercultural element in the Orthodox world. But members of the Na Nach sect now stand out as the new radicals, as the older tradition of Nachman study assumes a newfound respectability within the ultra-Orthodox world.

The sect’s name is a stub of the phrase Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’uman. Repeated often by followers as a kind of mantra, it spells out in Hebrew, adding one letter at a time, the name of the members’ revered teacher, who died and was buried in the town of Uman, Ukraine. Nachman’s great-grandfather, known as the Baal Shem Tov, established what was then seen as wild, spiritual Hasidism in response to the increasingly bookish rabbinic Judaism of the early 18th century. Nachman’s version of Hasidism was a back-to-basics campaign of sorts, and not at all popular with the Hasidic dynasties that had established themselves over the previous century.

Na Nachs sport the beards, sidelocks and yarmulkes favored by other ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jews, but often eschew traditional black trousers and frock coats. The Na Nach movement lacks a definable hierarchy, and its followers maintain that their connection with God is more personal than anything the authority of a rabbi can deliver. Instead of relying on the direction of a living rebbe, Na Nachs go straight to Nachman’s texts for spiritual guidance. Though the Na Nachs are seen in many cities across Israel, the lack of hierarchy makes it hard to count the number of followers.

The Na Nach van patrols — the movement’s charismatic but often ridiculed public face — are only part of what Na Nachs do. Nachman encouraged self-seclusion and meditation, during which his followers talk to God in an intimate manner. Bellowing, yelling and enthusiastic singing are the norm during group prayer.

Criticism of the Na Nachs by other Orthodox Jews — even from other Breslovers — stems from their unusual habits. “As far as mainstream Breslov is concerned, Na Nach has no validity whatsoever,” said Rabbi Chaim Kramer, a leader in the Breslov community. “You can’t just sit back, close your eyes and say a mantra; you have to study, you have to fill your heart with prayer, you have to have the Torah and perform the mitzvot.”

Secular people tend not to take them seriously, either. Many greet the grinning, dancing street revelers with incredulity and with questions about what mind-altering substances they may be using.

“I think they view their goal as trying to make people happy — to cause people to smile and create a good atmosphere — but I don’t find it funny anymore, and I don’t find it entertaining,” said Shaked Shtigel, a 28-year-old secular resident of central Tel Aviv. “They stop in the middle of the intersection, cause and create traffic, jump into the street, and don’t consider their surroundings.”

But the Na Nach world goes beyond raucous street parties in Tel Aviv to a spiritual realm rooted in Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical text. It is in sharp contrast with the secular party scene many of them left behind. Some took drugs, others came from nonreligious backgrounds and, Magid says, a few found their Na Nach calling while in gangs or prison yards. Whatever their pasts, they evince strong commitment to their current path.

“Rebbe Nachman said he wanted his people to be like wild animals, out in the woods, screaming and talking to God,” said Israel Blumenfeld, 29, an American expat who used to follow touring punk rock bands around the United States and Israel. Now he devotes his time to praying, studying Nachman’s teachings, and traveling around in vans with other Na Nachs.

Far from Tel Aviv, in the mountains near Meron in the Galilee, a group of Na Nachs assembles every Friday evening, at Uri Eliav’s pastoral home, to celebrate the Sabbath. Eliav is the patriarch of an ever-growing Na Nach family. His bright blue eyes twinkle as he smiles warmly at visitors to his Sabbath table. Most of them are young. Few have regular jobs. They live off donations, odd jobs and welfare, and do what they can to make ends meet. Some have wives, and some have families. Things get tight, but somehow they scrape by.

“Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’uman!” a grinning, bespectacled man shouts in a piercing tenor, one of the many times that line is uttered during the evening prayers. He calls himself Moshe Nanach, and he once appeared on the Israeli version of “American Idol.” Although he caused more than a few participants to cringe when he sang a devotional song horribly out of tune, he won over the program’s audience with his bellowing laughter and unwavering cheeriness.

Everyone at Eliav’s Sabbath table is male. Women occupy a separate, parallel niche, separate from, and supportive of, the men. The barrier relaxes a little after the meal concludes, when everyone lounges around the table in satisfied, semi-recumbent poses, chatting idly. First, a timid-looking young girl pokes her head out from behind the curtain that divides the dining room from the part of the house where the women ate their meal. A few moments later, the girl’s mother, Neta, Eliav’s wife, strides into the room, beaming. She is clad in a long, plain dress and a white head wrap reminiscent of 18th-century Poland.

“So how do you like it here?” she asks a newcomer, a visitor from America. “This is a holy life. Why not join us?”

Eliav’s farm was a favorite haunt of Rabbi Yisroel Ber Odesser, founder of the Na Nach version of Breslov Hasidism. Known to his followers as Sabba (“Grandpa” in Hebrew), Odesser passed away in 1994 at the age of 106. The journey that led him to spawn the Na Nach movement began in the 1920s, when he was attending a yeshiva in his native Tiberias. At the time, other Hasidic groups frowned upon studying Nachman’s works, but Odesser found one of the books in a trash can at the yeshiva and began reading, against the advice of his rabbis. One day, he found what Na Nachs believe to be a letter from Nachman stuck between the pages of one of the books in his room. The cryptic note included the phrase “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’uman,” which his followers believe has numeric correlations to parts of the Torah. Odesser’s discovery of the letter began a lifetime of dedication to learning and teaching Nachman’s works. It has also led to plenty of skepticism from some Hasidim, who believe that the note was placed there as a prank by a classmate.

According to Na Nach lore, Odesser suffered persecution by other religious Jews throughout his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when he was confined to a wheelchair, that he began to spread Nachman’s teachings.

Living in a manner similar to today’s young van crews, Odesser traveled around Israel, praying, singing and living off charity. He stayed with supporters and attracted new followers, whom he never really organized, from as far afield as France.

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Mystical union: Jewish-Sufis in the Holy Land Fri, 13 May 2011 19:46:44 +0000 Gray Beltran

By Zahra Raja

Jews and Muslims worship right next to each other in the Holy Land, yet they are separated by walls, barriers and hostility. Some Jews, however, are trying to break that pattern. They have found a path in Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam.

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Hare Krishnas in the Holy Land Fri, 13 May 2011 06:41:52 +0000 Gray Beltran
  • A member of the Hare Krishna movement looks onto the street in Tel Aviv.


  • The popular nickname "Hare Krishnas" comes from the mantra that the devotees sing aloud invoking Lord Krishna.


  • A young Hare Krishna plays the cymbals during harinam: singing and dancing to the mantra.


  • Members of the Hare Krishna mingle and dance with Tel Aviv residents.


  • Tel Aviv residents dancing with Hare Krishnas.


  • The procession returns to the Hare Krishna center on Ben Yehuda Street.


  • A devotee shows a figurine of Krishna that she carries with her.


  • The altar at the Hare Krishna center with representations of Krishna.


  • Devotees gather at the center for a kirtan to sing and pray.


  • An elderly devotee plays the cymbals.


  • A devotee plays the harmonium.


  • A devotee recites verses from the sacred text of the Bhagavad Gita.


  • By Sumit Galhotra

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    A protest through the eyes of a street vendor Fri, 13 May 2011 04:28:43 +0000 Gray Beltran

    By Jacob Anderson

    In East Jerusalem, there’s a protest that happens every Friday. It’s a mixed group, of Palestinians and Israelis. They’re opposing Jewish settlers who they say have unfairly moved into Palestinian homes, kicking families out. The neighborhood is called Sheikh Jarrah. Protesters have been there every week for more than a year and a half, since 2009, and one young man is turning the regular event into a business opportunity.

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    Hebron: stepping into the conflict Fri, 13 May 2011 03:38:38 +0000 Chiara Sottile

    A security guard (right) says that Breaking the Silence, the group guiding our tour, is uprooting the foundations of the state of Israel. Photo by Chiara Sottile.

    By Chiara Sottile

    The West Bank city of Hebron is as fraught with conflict as it is holy. Palestinians and Jews barely coexist in the divided city. Follow along on a guided tour through Hebron with the Covering Sacred Ground team. The journey begins beside the grave of Baruch Goldstein, where are group meets police resistance.

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    Pasta for Shabbat: Israel’s Italian Jewish community Thu, 12 May 2011 03:22:48 +0000 Chiara Sottile

    By Chiara Sottile

    The synagogue at 27 Hillel Street, in the heart of Jerusalem, is no ordinary synagogue. It is the fulcrum of Israel’s unique Italian Jewish community. The Italian-Jewish identity is a complicated one: sometimes painful and contradictory, and always with a special Italian flair. But recently, the Italian synagogue was given an ultimatum, one that could threaten this vibrant community.

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    Dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv Wed, 11 May 2011 20:44:37 +0000 Gray Beltran

    By Benjamin Preston

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    Palestinian first, queer second Wed, 11 May 2011 03:44:18 +0000 Jacob Anderson By Jacob Anderson

    When it comes to gay rights, some see Israel as a beacon of tolerance in the Middle East. Gays have served openly in the military since 1993, and the country is the only one in all of Asia that legally recognizes same-sex marriages from elsewhere, although homosexual marriages are not legally performed on Israeli soil. It is also unique in the region in that it specifically protects gays under anti-discrimination laws.

    The Palestinian territories, like Israel’s other neighbors, are more conservative. Homosexual actions are prohibited by Palestinian Authority law, and some LGBT Palestinians have been known to flee to Israeli cities like Tel Aviv, which has a large queer population.

    This difference poses little conflict, if any, for queer Palestinians like Haneen Maikey, who is far more committed to her national struggle than to any common bonds based on sexual orientation.

    “I don’t have any common thing with any Zionist, right-wing, Israeli queer,” said Maikey.

    Maikey is the co-founder and director of Al-Qaws (“the rainbow” in Arabic) for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society, a non-profit organization in Jerusalem started by Palestinian citizens of Israel and of the territories. She says the Palestine issue should be a queer issue, since both groups have been oppressed.

    She has also seen first-hand that is not always the case. Maikey has butted heads with Israeli organizations like Stand With Us, a pro-Zionist organization active on college campuses that touts Israel’s gay rights as a reason for young people to support Israel.  She says that Stand With Us is primarily an Israeli propaganda organization with no real connection to the LGBT community or authority to speak on queer issues. Al-Qaws, along with several other Palestinian queer groups, released an official statements accusing Stand With Us of “pinkwashing” Israel, using its record on gay rights to cover-up its repressive policies toward Palestinians.

    Ophir Peleg, an employee of Stand With Us, dismisses the statement, saying it “came from a very, very small radical group from within Israeli society.”

    “Most of the Israeli Arabs I have encountered which are gays weren’t related to any kind of gay organization,” he added.

    Peleg, a 28 year old gay man, said Al-Qaws’ geographical location—swanky West Jerusalem—is telling. He said groups like Al-Qaws are bent on opposing the very country that provides them with protection and tolerance they would not find in Palestinian society. The accusation that Stand With Us had used the gay issue for other political aims could just as easily apply to Al-Qaws, he said.

    “I don’t see it as an issue that has anything to do with the Israeli Palestinian conflict,”Peleg said, adding that the central issue here is gay rights. “Israel should be proud to be the only island of tolerance within the Middle East.”

    But in this region, it seems everything has something to do with the Israeli Palestinian conflict. For Haneen Maikey, a 33-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel with a Master’s degree in community organization management, even other facets of her identity—as a woman, and a feminist—take a back seat to her people’s struggle. What might be areas of common ground for others have little value for her when they conflict with her identity as a Palestinian.

    “I have nothing to share ideologically with a woman that presents herself as a feminist, but on the other hand lives in a settlement and occupies Palestinian territory,” Maikey said, speaking hypothetically.

    “Being a person who suffered from being a woman, and choosing to oppress other people, it’s just—no!” she added.

    Al-Qaws is now an independent organization focused exclusively on supporting Palestinian queers, but it grew out of the Jerusalem Open House, which began as a Jewish organization for Israeli gays but now says it transcends political, ethnic, and religious boundaries. The Jerusalem Open House still shares office space with Al-Qaws.

    Maikey often finds herself dispelling myths about Palestinian cultural attitudes toward gays. No, not every Palestinian hates gays, she says. And, yes, homophobia is a problem, just like it is in Western countries, she adds.

    Across the wall separating Israel from Palestine, in Bethlehem, I asked the members of an Arab youth group about homosexuality. Their initial response was uncomfortable giggles. Most students said they did not know any gay people at all. A few said they knew of someone, or suspected someone secretly was gay. The group was  comprised of Palestinian Christians and Muslims, who expressed the commonly held view that homosexuality is a sin, or a disease.

    Fuad Giacaman, the adult leader of the group, and a Roman Catholic, said the topic of homosexuality is something that mosques, churches and families in Palestine need to address more proactively, if for no other reason than to raise awareness of differences.

    “Respecting the difference, even with this phenomenon, is something that we have to look forward to,” Giacaman said.

    For Haneen Maikey, the subject of homosexuality is taboo even in her own family. She has never told them she is queer, but she believes they know–a simple Google search of her name clearly reveals as much: “Haneen Maikey: Proud. Palestinian. Queer,” as one result declares.

    “My dad never asked me so he doesn’t know,” she said. “But I’m sure if he wants to know he knows.”

    The very notion of “coming out” as an expression of personal liberation exists more within a Western context than a Palestinian one, she said, although it is being more commonly adopted in some communities in the region.

    Still,  when she thinks about the possibility of more Palestinians publicly declaring their sexual orientation, she is also thinking strategically.

    “What kind of visibility can serve and be productive and constructive for our struggle?” she said.

    It is unclear which struggle—queer or Palestinian—Maikey was referring to, but for her, both are ongoing. In February, Al-Qaws and other groups were outraged when the New York City LGBT Center canceled a planned event in support of Israel Apartheid Week. The event was dropped when a gay Amerian-Israeli pornographer, Michael Lucas, called the event anti-Semitic, and pressured the center to cancel it.

    Maikey spoke out on the Lucas controversy as well, but in the end the event was called off. Lucas said he supports the rights of any group to speak freely, but opposed the idea of a group like the organizers of Israel Apartheid Week, which has no overt gay affiliation, using the gay center.

    “This has nothing to do with the mission of the center,” which exists to support the gay community, not other political causes, he said.

    “It’s a question of venue,” Lucas added. The accusation is reminiscent of Maikey’s argument that Stand With Us also conflates queer issues and political ones.

    It may be tempting for outsiders to accept commonly used phrases like “the gay community” as descriptive, to assume that queers are all part of the same parade, so to speak.

    But Lucas said that could not be further from the truth, especially when it comes to the Israel-Palestine issue.

    “I don’t see the connection,” he said. “I don’t need to have common ground with [Palestinians].”

    Haneen Maikey, of the Palestinian group Al-Qaws, expressed an equal an opposite sentiment about her Palestinian cause and those who oppose it, queers included.

    “I never saw or understood gay identity as one big happy identity,” she said. “It’s not a good enough infrastructure to engage with each other.”

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    Torn between two worlds and an uncertain future Mon, 09 May 2011 21:00:18 +0000 Gray Beltran

    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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    The psychology of an East Jerusalem protest Mon, 09 May 2011 18:52:34 +0000 Niharika Mandhana

    By Zohreen Adamjee

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