Commentary: Jerusalem Saga: Light at the End of the Tunnel?

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

Since time immemorial Armenians and Greeks in Jerusalem have challenged each other to win the competition to bring out the light of the Holy Sepulchre Church on the eve of the Easter Feast (Jrakalooydz). Most of the time, Armenian monks have been the champions. But in recent years the Greeks have become more assertive, if not more belligerent, pushing the Armenians to the background.
Along with losing the symbolic Holy Sepulchre light, the Armenian Patriarchate itself has fallen on hard times because of the encroachment of the Israeli government, incessant feud with the Greek Patriarchate, internal corruption and the dwindling Armenian population in the Holy City.
[Christ descended into Jerusalem as the Prince of Peace, yet ironically, the Holy land has been the most tortured piece of real estate on earth. And Armenians, with their propensity to adversity, have kept their presence on that tortured land since the pre-Christian era, and beginning in the sixth century AD, they have built their churches and established the Patriarchate.
Over many centuries, Jerusalem and the Holy places have changed hands between many conquerors and Armenians have learned to survive throughout those tumultuous upheavals.
News emanating from the Armenian Patriarchate has often been more disheartening than positive. Many of the problems have been created by the successive ruling powers, but also by the hands of the Armenian clergy jaded to abuse and conspiracy.

But it looks like there is a light at the end of the tunnel as evidenced by the news release sent by the Patriarchate, following a conclave of the St. James Brotherhood, which took place November 15 to 18.

The release gives a positive spin to the developments in Jerusalem.

One of the major changes is the request by the aging and ailing Patriarch, Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, to elect a coadjutor patriarch to assist him in running the affairs of the patriarchate, which have become overwhelming for the 93-year-old. There are many precedents in the history of Jerusalem when coadjutor patriarchs have been elected to assist an incapacitated pontiff. But the current by-laws don’t have any provision for that position. Therefore, a by-laws committee has been appointed, headed by Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, to amend the current by-laws to allow the election of the coadjutor patriarch, by March 2011. As to who the potential candidate may be, its anyone’s guess. It looks like there are at least three unannounced candidates for the position. Anyone elected will almost certainly be elevated to the position of patriarch later.

The change in the by-laws also will define the function and the powers of the coadjutor.

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From all indications, the situation in the patriarchate is in shambles, not only because the current patriarch has lost control but also because the set-up at the patriarchate is conducive to all kinds of abuse and scandal. Corruption, internecine fighting and loss of property and treasures have been common-place occurrences along with heroic acts to defend the interests of the brotherhood and ultimate sacrifices, which clergy like Gregory the Chain Bearer (Krikor Sheghtayageer) have demonstrated in their effort to pay the brotherhood’s debts by hanging chains around their neck until the patriarchate became debt free.

Jerusalem being at the nerve center of Middle Eastern politics where many powerful forces collide makes life very challenging for the Armenian patriarchate. The leadership there needs to be endowed with diplomatic skills to deal with Israeli and Palestinian competing interests. Another challenge is the ongoing feud between the Armenian and Greek patriarchates. Time and again, corrupt clergy have caused more damage than outside sources and their existence today will help facilitate outside encroachments.

Armenians control one-sixth of the Holy places, the rest being divided among the Catholic, Greek, Syrian, Coptic and Ethiopian churches.

The impression in the outside world is that no one has the inventory of the real estate owned by the patriarchate, nor has there been accountability and transparency about income derived from those real estate holdings.
One common sense question has come up time and again: while the Brotherhood sits on a treasure trove, why does it continue to appeal to the world Armenian community for financial support?

The Holy places are governed by the Status Quo of 1852 established by the Ottoman rulers.

Successive administrations have by and large honored the rights and privileges prescribed in that Ottoman document.

While the Status Quo protects the rights of the different denominations, it also provides license for arrogance, allowing some impertinent clergy to defy any outside inquiry or challenge even superior moral authority.
Throughout history Armenian pilgrims, benefactors and organizations have helped the Jerusalem Patriarchate, without asking for accountability and transparency which has only encouraged the defense among some clergy.
In 1914, while Jerusalem was still accountable to the National Council in Istanbul, a delegation was dispatched to investigate irregularities at the St. James Brotherhood. The delegation was headed by former Istanbul Patriarch Archbishop Malachia Ormanian and revered scholar and poet Vahan Tekeyan.

Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Archbishop Ormanian joined the corrupt clergy and in so many words indicated to Tekeyan that the laity should not have any say in the affairs of the patriarchate.

That attitude is still prevalent in Jerusalem, giving a free hand to corrupt clergy who speak louder than the honest and pious members of the brotherhood.

Patriarch Manoogian has been one of the respected princes of the Armenian Church, well-versed in our liturgy and dedicated to the well being of the Armenian Church. At age 93, he has realized finally that management and administrative skills are not his forte. He has decided to engage a younger and more capable assistant to run the affairs of the patriarchate.

The sooner the brotherhood turns over the management of its affairs to outside professional people, the better for the patriarchate and for the Armenian Church in general.

Armenians have supported the monasteries and the patriarchates throughout history generously, but incompetent clergy, at times, have failed the confidence bestowed on them. The Mekhitarist Congregation in Venice was duped into losing $50 million worth of real estate, believing that they were entering into a profitable deal. They would also have lost St. Lazarus Island had it not been for a bailout by generous benefactors. The Vienna congregation in its turn sustained some losses when unscrupulous members stole paintings, documents and manuscripts.

Of course, Jerusalem has been scandal ridden most of the time.

In the past it was in the interest of the Ottoman rulers not to allow any outside authority to have any say in the affairs of St. James Brotherhood. By the same token, the British, Jordanian and Israeli authorities have jealously guarded that isolation. But is that status in the best interest of the Armenian people and the Armenian Church?
Patriarch Yeghishe Derderian and Torkom Manoogian have been very respectful of the moral authority of the Supreme Patriarch in Echmiadzin. But that moral authority needs to be institutionalized in order to have some kind of weight by the Catholicos of all Armenians, and also the Armenian government.

Even during the Communist era, the atheist government in Moscow was able to wield its authority to defend the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.

The recent conclave in November is a hopeful sign that the untenable conditions in Jerusalem have  struck the minds and hearts of the members of the brotherhood and they have decided to get their act together.

Any further deterioration in the situation can cause irreparable damage to the historic mission of the patriarchate.
It seems that wisdom has dawned upon the brotherhood, whose members can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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