Jerusalem in Limbo

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

Armenians have a knack for living in or placing their major national treasures in troubled spots around the globe. The Caucasus and the Middle East have been historically volatile regions, where rival political forces have clashed and Armenia and Armenians have often constituted the collateral damage.

Following the Genocide, large masses of survivors settled in Middle Eastern countries, which served as a safe haven, only to deteriorate in time one by one, undermining the lives of well-established communities.

Thriving Armenian communities in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon have shrunk into mere skeletons of their former selves. Today, it is the turn of Syria, where a vibrant Armenian community lives.

In most of those countries — perhaps except for Egypt — Armenian presence dates back to the Genocide era. The only spot that the Armenians have been anchored for almost 2,000 years has been Jerusalem. Archeological excavations have proven that Armenians have lived in the Holy Land even before the Christian era. And Patriarch Abraham of Jerusalem traveled to Mecca in the seventh century to secure special privileges for the patriarchate from the prophet Mohammed himself.

Jerusalem being the land of miracles, the survival of the Armenian Patriarchate can be defined as one of those miracles. Our historic experience has given us good reason to vilify the Ottoman rulers for their treatment of their minority subjects, but at times, for their own good, they have supported the Armenian interests, indirectly. One being Fatih Sultan Mohammed, who conquered Constantinople in 1453. He encouraged the establishment of the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul as a counterweight to the Greek Patriarchate.

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Another instance in Jerusalem is where the conflicting interests of Greeks, Latins and Russians were counterbalanced by the Ottoman sultan’s support of the Armenian Patriarchate, which was, any way, under the tutelage and control of the Istanbul Patriarchate, until the end of the World War I.

The 19th-century “Status Quo” agreement had granted rights and privileges to the Christian churches in Jerusalem. Armenians benefited from that status and they maintained their control of one quarter of the Christian Quarter for centuries. But today they stand to lose that position for internal and external reasons.

Under President Bill Clinton, parameters laid down at Camp David in 2000 stated that the Christian and Muslim sectors were to remain under Palestinian control in case East Jerusalem becomes the capital of the Palestinian state. The agreement also guaranteed full access for Jews to reach and pray at the Wailing Wall, through the Armenian Quarter.

Despite recent pronouncements by President Barack Obama, the formation of a Palestinian independent state remains an illusory political dream while the Israeli government continues to create “facts on the ground” at the expense of Christian Churches. Occupied Palestinian territories have suffered the brunt of that policy for too long, as a consequence of the Jewish settlement expansion, undeterred by international outcry or UN resolutions.

That policy is also creeping into the Christian Quarter as time passes. As long as the Israeli-Palestinian issue continues to drag land grab in the territories and in Jerusalem itself will become a fact of life.

In 2005, the Greek Patriarch Irineos sold a piece of property at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem to Israel, creating a firestorm in Greece and Greek communities around the world. In fact the deal was a lease for 198 years. Other deals are for 99 years. For all practical purposes, these deals are, in effect, final sales. It is any one’s guess what happens to the destiny of those properties at the maturity date of the deal.

Armenians have also become victims of such suspicious deals and the only explanation given by the patriarchate authorities was that they were duped to sign the deal.

Armenians have churches and other property at prime locations, which are easy target for future “deals.”

At this crucial period in history when the entire Armenian existence in Holy Land is in jeopardy, the patriarchate and the brotherhood are in disarray. The public agenda of the Armenians is composed of the ailments of 94-year-old Patriarch Torkom Manoogian, rather than his achievements or the good deeds of the St. James Brotherhood.

At its heyday, the Armenian population in Jerusalem numbered at 25,000; today it has been reduced to less than 1,000. The large Armenian presence would only amount to moral support to the patriarchate, which runs its own affairs without outside interference, with the authority granted to the brotherhood by the Status Quo agreement.

Greeks, Russians and the Vatican have always interfered and supported their respective patriarchates in Jerusalem. Only the St. James Brotherhood savors to the full extent of its independence granted by the Status Quo, so much so that during the last conclave of the brotherhood, high-ranking clergy from Echmiadzin were not accorded the courtesy of being invited to attend the conclave and the message of the Supreme Patriarch Karekin II was handed to the brotherhood to be read.

On top of the Israeli-Palestinian rivalry, which affects Armenian interests, there is a tug of war behind the scenes between Echmiadzin and Antelias forces, all compounded by the personal ambitions of individual members of the clergy.

March 15 was the deadline to elect a co-adjutor patriarch to help the frail patriarch in running the affairs of the brotherhood. The deadline passed and no action was taken, despite the fact that with the passage of time, the patriarch is only becoming more feeble.

In view of potentially dangerous prospects, there is footdragging, which can produce catastrophic results.

The internal by-laws of the patriarchate was supposed to be amended to allow for the election of the co- djutor. No communication was made public to that effect.

Over the long centuries Armenians around the world have sacrificed to build the present wealth in Jerusalem, but since 1914 when Patriarch Ormanian was dispatched from Istanbul to inspect the irregularities in the patriarchate, public accountability has not been the policy of St. James Brotherhood.

The recent Israeli government policy of taxing the Christian church properties will further erode the tenuous situation of the Armenian patriarchate, but that threat does not even compel the brotherhood to put its house in order.

Horse trading continues between the potential candidates. The high-ranking clergy who can secure the stability of the patriarchate are shunning the responsibility, while all other members in their presumptions feels competent to serve as co-adjutor patriarch and eventually the patriarch.

Personal and partisan rivalries dominate the scene, while Israeli-Palestinian confrontation threatens our vital interests and stands to give away our much coveted properties.

There seems to be no sense of urgency, while everything is behind a veil of mysterious secrecy.

The Jerusalem Patriarchate is in limbo.

But not for too long.

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