Armenian News Network / Groong

2007 - A watershed year for the Armenians of Jerusalem?

Armenian News Network / Groong
January 12, 2007

By Arthur Hagopian


Early Snow in Jerusalem
Early snow over the Old City
Courtesy: Custodia di Terra Santa

As members of the tiny enclave of Armenians in the Old City of Jerusalem celebrate Christmas on January 19, in accordance with a centuries-old tradition, they will be looking forward to perhaps one of the most decisive years in the history of the region.

What does 2007 hold for them? What can the spiritual leader of this enduring bastion of diaspora Armenians, Patriarch Torkom Manoogian, tell them in the message he will be delivering from the Grotto of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, as the clock strikes midnight?

Manoogian has been leading prayers for peace since his election in 1990 - but the commodity that has remained elusive so far may finally lie within reach.

Perhaps the snow that fell early this winter on the Old City, blanketing its forest of domed roofs and dish antennas with a gentle, downy white, is the harbinger of a new era of hope for the Middle East.

It may not all be wishful thinking, according to seasoned political soothsayers and pundits, whose crying bowls have so far failed to reveal any truly hopeful vision for the future.

The tide is turning, they believe. There are signs aplenty, despite the current Arab-Israeli impasse. For one thing, there is a growing realization by the key player, Israel, that military power alone will not be sufficient to solve the region's problems, or eradicate the threat of terrorism.

Even among the flights of hawks on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide, there is an urge for a fundamental shift in outlook and expectations.

In particular, more voices are being raised in the West and in Israel calling for a re-appraisal of Islam's true message: a religion that teaches the infinite mercy of God and an unconditional obedience to His will, rather than an unquenchable thirst for the indiscriminate shedding of innocent blood.

Regional political leaders can ignore the resounding yearning for peace only at their peril, because there is little doubt in anyone's mind that with understanding and acceptance, Arab and Jew will inevitably turn their spears into pruning forks and their swords into plowshares, and stop teaching their children the art of war.

And when peace comes to Jerusalem, terrorism will surely lose its raison d'etre.

Within this ambience, Christians, Moslems and Jews continue to co-exist in the Holy Land, albeit in limbo, making the best they can of a tenuous truce in the face of a still uncertain future.

But they will not have to wait till the End of Days, or the advent of the Messiah (He is to enter the Holy City of Jerusalem through the Gates of Mercy which have been walled-up for centuries), if the prognostications of the pundits prove reliable this time.

And peace could not come too soon.

"We are tired and dispirited," as one elderly denizen of the Armenian Quarter told this correspondent. "Perhaps for us grown-ups, it is probably already too late to enjoy the fruits of peace. But for our children, it will mean a whole new world at their fingertips." Among the Armenians of Jerusalem there is also the expectation that an era of peace will finally halt and quite possibly reverse the headlong wave of attrition that has decimated their ranks.

There is a widespread feeling that a significant number of Jerusalem Armenians at present domiciled abroad, entertain the dream of returning home to the Old City and resettling there. For them Jerusalem is not only home, it is also the center of the world.

Despite their plight, the Armenians of Jerusalem cannot be said to be living dangerously. They actually fare much better than their compatriots in many other parts of the Middle East. Conditions may not be ideal, but they are tolerable.

For one thing, they enjoy the benefits of one of the world's most comprehensive and sophisticated medical systems, the Kupat Holim, all at affordable rates. Israel's pension scheme is even more generous.

But over and above all, there is a job for every single Armenian in Jerusalem, when and if he wants it, thanks to the magnanimous monolith of the Patriarchate of St James which, under the caring and sagacious stewardship of Archbishop Manoogian has been metamorphosed into an island of hope and security for all Armenians.

Manoogian ascended the throne of St James on a platform of perestroika, borne on winds of change, and proceeded at once to institute a string of much-needed reforms, among them ones that helped propel the Patriarchate into the technological age.

In the process, he has created plentiful job opportunities with the result that almost every family residing in the Armenian Compound has one or more of its members on the Patriarchate payroll.

The charismatic churchman has worked tirelessly to streamline the administration of his office. He has succeeded in rubbing out the treasury's red ink and has dramatically improved the living conditions of the members of the priestly Brotherhood of St James.

"Manoogian cares," one community leader said. "That's one way of summing up what makes him run. The welfare of his community comes first. Not that he does not have his detractors - but then that is to be expected when a reformer takes over."

The Armenian presence in Jerusalem remains caught in the cross-hairs of political maneuvering, with both Arabs and Jews firm in their resolve to exert full control over the city, but the sense of endemic foreboding is easing off.

The momentum for peace keeps building up despite occasional setbacks: and there is every reason to believe the halcyon days when the world stood with baited breath as it waited to see whether the dream of a "peace of the brave," promulgated by former Israel labor prime minister Ehud Barak (there's growing speculation he might stage a combeack), would ever be realized will be with us again.

Although the political situation could not be murkier, with Arab and Jew still entrenched on both sides of the divide, courageous minds will keep on working towards achieving peace in our time. Whether it will come in our time, or our children's, remains to be seen.

Arthur Hagopian is a Jerusalem Armenian and has worked at the
Patriarchate as Press Officer and personal secretary for His Beatitude
Patriarch Manoogian. He has worked for major news organizations like
Reuters and AP, and holds a MA in educational administration,
authoring, web development.
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