Commentary: Armenian Jerusalem in Limbo


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Two Armenian patriarchs in vegetating states — one in Istanbul and the other in Jerusalem — do not augur well for the Armenian Church in general. Those two patriarchates are major hierarchical seats within the structure of the Armenian Church and they are both paralyzed by a tragic stroke of nature. But what is more trag- ic is the eerie silence reigning throughout the Armenian world about these two alarming situations. Both patriarchates are situat- ed in countries where there is no love lost for the Armenians.
In the case of Istanbul Patriarchate, the community proved to be ineffective in steering to a normal situation when it was revealed that Patriarch Mesrob Mutafian was incurably incapacitated. Two different proposals were submitted to the Turkish government: to elect a new patriarch or to elect a coadjutor patriarch to run the affairs of the Patriarchate. The authorities preferred the stalemate, which benefited Bishop Aram Ateshian, with a poor standing in the community but in a good position to contribute to Turkey’s politi- cal agenda.
In the case of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, the handwriting was on the wall. The aging Patriarch Torkom Manoogian had already failed more than once to defend the patriarchate’s interests in some real estate deals, and it was very obvious that he could further compro- mise the Patriarchate’s properties against the sharks vying for those valuable pieces of property.
Armenians have lived in Jerusalem from time immemorial. In 95 BC, Jerusalem became part of Tigranes II’s empire. But the Patriarchate was established in the seventh century (638 AD) when the Caliph Umar Ibn Khattab proclaimed Abraham I, senior bishop of the Armenian Church, as the patriarch of the Armenian Church and the leader of the Eastern Orthodox denominations (Assyrian, Coptic and Abyssinian) to neutralize the authority of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Sophronius. It is no coincidence that another Muslim ruler, namely Fatih Sultan Mohammed, helped the creation of the Istanbul Patriarchate, after he conquered that city in 1453, exactly with the same political motivation, i.e. to neutralize the power of the Byzantine church. Of course, Armenians benefited from these rivalries, but they gained the perpetual hostility of Greek Orthodox Church, even to this day. Incidentally, recent rapproche- ment between Israel and Cyprus (and by extension Greece) might further fuel the Greek Patriarchate’s churches rivalry with the Armenians in the Holy City.
But Armenians do not need foreign enemies. They are perfectly capable of destroying themselves and their institutions.
It is believed that after the 1948 partition, there were 16,000 Armenians living in Jerusalem. That number reached 25,000 at its peak. Today, their count is less than 1,000. One can rightfully ask if these people felt secure and enjoyed the prospects of prosperity in the “only democratic country in the Middle East,” why they would seek opportunities in far away lands.
The answer to this question appeared in one of the Israeli papers (Ha’aretz) by a reporter named Nir Hossan who wrote:
“Jerusalem’s Christian community increasingly feels under assault, and that is especially true for Christians living in Jewish neighborhoods. Priests in the Old City, especially Armenian priests who must often transit the Jewish Quarter, say they are spat on daily.”
Spitting may yet be the least offensive act against the Armenians, who are sitting on a gold mine, in terms of property they own. The creeping appetite of the Jewish settlers and developers will eventu- ally expropriate the Patriarchate of its real estate holdings, under the benevolent eyes of the Israeli authorities.
Yet, against these raging appetites, we have a comatose and mori- bund Patriarch and a divided Brotherhood unable to manage its affairs.
Although the smallest of the quarters in Jerusalem, along with Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters, the Armenian Quarter cov- ers one-sixth of the Old City. But the Patriarchate also owns prop- erty outside the limits of the Old City, which it has notoriously mis- managed over the centuries.
Armenians have sporadically faced “Jerusalem crises” alarming the world Armenian community to run for rescue, but then, trans- parency and accountability are not in the lexicon of the Patriarchate.
The treasures and properties accumulated over the centuries are the gifts of the Armenian people entrusted to the Brotherhood, who are supposed to act only as the custodian of that wealth. But very few spiritual leaders have realized that role; most of them have acted as if they owned the holy places.
That is certainly not a criticism directed toward any particular patriarch or brotherhood.
A case in point was another historic crisis erupted in 1914, just before World War I and the Armenian Genocide. At that time the Jerusalem Patriarchate was under the tutelage of the Armenian National Central Council in Istanbul, which decided to dispatch a delegation headed by two prominent leaders to resolve the crisis. One of those leaders was Archbishop Malachia Ormanian, himself a historic figure as a former patriarch and maker of history through his masterful studies on the history of the Armenian Church and its theology. The other leader was Vahan Tekeyan, a world-class poet and a public figure of impeccable integrity.
As soon as the delegation arrived in Jerusalem, Archbishop Ormanian connived with the clergy of the Brotherhood to make the presence of Tekeyan irrelevant. Then the war started and every- thing fell into further disarray.
This is an endemic problem; every time a higher body tries to exercise some authority to put the house in order in Jerusalem, the clergy gang up and they declare their fierce independence, with an arrogance that “we know better.”
But that bravura is exercised only against Armenian authority, lay or spiritual. When it comes to any ruling authority, the brotherhood is docile and pliant. That is where we lose.
The Russian church in Jerusalem benefited tremendously from Moscow even during the Soviet period. But our clergy are loath to encourage any protective move by the Armenian government or even by the Supreme Spiritual head of the Armenian Church or any other entity.
This overreaction to any outside advice or help is protected by a law, which governs the holy places. That law was promulgated in 1852 through a decree by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Majid, known as the Status Quo, which regulates the rights, privileges and the authority of different religions. The law has been exercised by the Ottoman, British Colonial, Jordanian and Israeli authorities.
On the one hand, it protects different religions and entities against encroachments by the ruling powers and on the other hand it leaves the destiny of a huge wealth in the hands of a beleaguered Brotherhood.
The last few years there was talk to convince the St. James Brotherhood to plan a smooth succession, as the Patriarch’s health was deteriorating. During the last year, a convocation of the Brotherhood was cancelled twice. Its major agenda was to elect a coadjutor patriarch.
This tricky succession requires an amendment to the Patriarchate’s by-laws, and one was prepared. However, the pro- crastination of the Patriarch led to the present impasse.
Today the Grand Sacristan of the Patriarchate, Archbishop Nourhan Manoukian, has assumed the responsibility of running day-to-day operation of the Patriarchate.
Unfortunately, the Patriarch’s recovery is not in the cards. There is a worldwide silence, which is very dangerous. The candidates who can succeed and stabilize the situation do not seem interested. On the other hand, candidates who are ready to ascend the throne and emulate the late Patriarch Yeghishe Derderian’s extravagant lifestyle are ready to seize the opportunity.
It is not only the material wealth of the Patriarchate that is at stake, but also its cultural and historic treasures. The attempted sale of 28 illuminated manuscripts at Sotheby’s in London some years ago is still a searing memory. Turkish and Israeli authori- ties also keep a watchful eye on the archives of the Istanbul Patriarchate transferred to Jerusalem for safe keeping during World War I. They contain incriminating documents about the Genocide.
Jerusalem is everybody’s concern and, yes, every Armenian’s busi- ness. The Brotherhood needs to reach out to the world Armenian community, over and beyond the Status Quo provisions and elect a worthy successor and also enlist the cooperation of real estate and financial experts to salvage our legacy in the Holy Land.
Let us pray for the good health of our ailing Patriarch but above all let us pray for the endangered future of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, which is in limbo.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:
Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: