‘Abandoned’ Armenian Properties around the World: Part III

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Jerusalem is one of the most hotly-contested cities in the world. Consequently, to discuss any issue relating to the Armenian presence in that holy city is equally controversial. However, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem is a badge of honor before the world thanks to its history as well as its location in one of the most important cities in the globe.

In addition to its religious, cultural and educational role, Jerusalem plays a significant political one.

Incidentally, during the Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat negotiations in the 1990s to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fate of the Armenian Quarter became a sticking point, because each side had been insisting on bringing the quarter under its jurisdiction.

The Armenian Patriarchate dates back to the 7th century AD, when the first patriarch, Abraham I, served from 638 to 669. Ever since then, its place in the Christian world has expanded exponentially, along with its real estate portfolio, which has helped to sustain its existence.

The Patriarchate and its St. James Monastery have survived under Arab, Crusader, Ottoman, British, Jordanian and Israeli rules, thanks to the monks’ ingenuity and political maneuvering.

Armenians all around the world have supported the St. James Brotherhood to expand its real estate holdings, which have reached a size that is fairly unmanageable.

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At times, its fortunes have ebbed and the debts of the Patriarchate have endangered its existence; in those instances, the monastic brotherhood has appealed to the greater Armenian community.

One Patriarch in particular has symbolized the degree of sacrifice the clergy have endured in order to salvage the Patriarchate and the brotherhood. His name was Krikor VI the Chain Bearer (1715-1749) or Krikor VI Shiravantzee, who had decided to wear heavy chains around his neck as a symbol of the difficulties he was willing to endure in his efforts to help the Patriarchate recover from its debts.

Jerusalem also served as a safe haven for the survivors of the Armenian Genocide, who were housed, protected and fed for a long time by the Patriarchate. There were 25,000 Armenians sheltered at the St. James Brotherhood compound at that period. When the war broke out in 1948 between the Arabs and Israelis, there were 8,000 left in the wake of war and today their numbers hardly reach 800. Perhaps with other cities such as Haifa, Ramallah and Bethlehem, they may total 2,000-2,500.

The St. James Brotherhood has educated many generations of clergy who then served churches in Armenian communities around the world.

For many centuries, different churches and religions have fought to maintain their turf. Finally, a firman by the Ottoman Sultan defined the delineation of the property in 1757. The document is called the Status Quo, which was ratified and finalized by Sultan Abdelmecid in 1853 and ever since, the ruling governments have respected it. According to the clauses of the Status Quo, the Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: Muslim, Latin (Catholic), Jewish, and Armenian. The Armenians control valuable real estate as well as major religious sites, to the envy of the other Christian denominations.

The status of Jerusalem has provided full authority to the Armenian Patriarchate to conduct its own affairs. They are not overseen by any authority and they are not accountable to any hierarchy, like the Greek Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church are to their leaders.

For many centuries, most of the patriarchs and the members of the Brotherhood have managed the Patriarchate conscientiously. But sometimes, the baser instincts of human nature have taken over the members of the clergy in power who have commited outrageous crimes in full view of an impotent world.

The Patriarchate owns 4,000 Armenian-language manuscripts, second only to the Matenadaran Armenian Repository in Yerevan.

The Patriarchate owns invaluable real estate, with some putting the estimated price at billions of dollars.

For centuries, the Patriarchate in Istanbul played a role of government in the Ottoman government and had control over Jerusalem. Istanbul has amassed large volumes of documents and statistics. Those documents are of fundamental value any time a compensation issue is raised. These documents have been transferred and are housed in Jerusalem, along with many manuscripts and documents about the Genocide.

The Jerusalem Patriarchate has not been immune to scandals and sometimes by members of the clergy who have otherwise contributed meaningfully to the church and the culture.

As Jerusalem was accountable to the Patriarchate in Constantinople. Periodically, delegations were sent from Constantinople to Jerusalem to settle disputes or dissipate controversies. In 1914, one such delegation was composed of former Patriarch Malachia Ormanian, an intellectual giant whose monumental contributions to church history could only be achieved by an entire institution. The other member was poet Vahan Tekeyan.

Ormanian was prone to intrigues while Tekeyan was the epitome of integrity. As soon as the delegation arrived in Jerusalem, Ormanian joined the corrupt clergy and dissociated himself from the other member of the delegation, using the excuse that lay people have no business in getting involved in settling clergy disputes.

That excuse is alive even today when corrupt members of the clergy seek refuge in hiding their misdeeds.

Ormanian’s transgressions paled by comparison to the conduct of other members of the clergy in Jerusalem since then.

A very particular and colorful case was that of Patriarch Yeghishe Derderian, a gifted poet in his own right but corrupt to his very bones.

Before ascending to the Patriarchal throne, he had served as locum tenens, during which he connived with Jordanian authorities to expel from Jerusalem Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan, a towering figure in the Church and legally-elected patriarch. Then he elected himself as Patriarch in 1960 and served for 30 years. Since a relatively small number of Brotherhood members are left, it has become almost the norm for any member of the clergy to bribe his way to the seat of Patriarch.

Patriarch Yeghishe was a skillful diplomat to be able to navigate through the political jungle of Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians to preserve the prestige of the Patriarchate. But he ruled the Brotherhood as if the Patriarchate were his own personal fiefdom, surrounding himself with his concubines.

In the early 1970s, 27 Armenian manuscripts emerged on the auction block of Sotheby’s in London. Thanks to historian Dr. Sirarpie Der Nercessian’s detective work which tracked down the provenance of the manuscripts. The Patriarch cynically blamed the disappearances of these manuscripts on a saintly member of the clergy, namely Patriarch Shnork Kalustian, and a certain antique dealer of ill repute. Thanks to Alex Manoogian’s involvement and contributions the manuscripts were returned to the Patriarchate.

The Patriarchate has properties outside Jerusalem, in Israel and elsewhere.

Archbishop Derderian ceded two properties to the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Lebanon: St. Nishan Cathedral in Beirut and the Hovivadoon (Pastor’s residence) in Aleppo, Syria.

The current leadership at the Patriarchate is pursuing other pieces of property in Turkey, diligently and diplomatically.

Archbishop Torkom Manoogian succeeded Derderian and served from 1990 to 2012. He was the quintessential clergyman, a poet and a musicologist of Armenian divine liturgy. Under his watch, a real estate scandal broke out and a valuable piece of property was sold for a pittance by his underlings in charge of real estate. The Patriarch had to confess publicly that “our attorneys duped us.”

Now and then, stories break about the loss or sale of properties in Jerusalem. It is horrendously difficult for the clergy, most of whom lack the expertise, to preserve the vast holding in an era when President Trump can slice a piece of land, such as the Golan Heights in Syria, and donate it to Israel.

In October 2018, the Christian Churches were alarmed that a bill was introduced at the Israeli Parliament by Rachel Azaria, of the centrist Kulanu party, which was meant to “solve the problem of thousands of Jerusalem residents who would leave their homes due to the demands of developers.”

The Armenian and Greek Patriarchates wrote a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, asking “To block the draft legislation, which was aimed at expropriating their properties.”

The bill was frozen but not rescinded.

In the meantime, the government stated that “the government of Israel has no intention to confiscate church lands or cause any economic damage to the churches. The goal of the government is to protect the rights of the churches, of investors and tenants.”

There is obviously a struggle for a land grab.

If the expropriation of Palestinian lands is an indication, the Christian churches cannot expect any better outcome. Particularly if and when corrupt members of the clergy are involved in the matter.

Historically Jerusalem Patriarchate has appealed to the worldwide Armenian communities for assistance, but they have never felt any obligation to present a transparent accounting.

Also, the mindset of the ruling Patriarch determines whether the unity of the Armenian Church will be preserved or not. The irreverent public diatribe by the current Patriarch, Nourhan Manougian, against his superior, Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II, is an indication of that status.

The gradual weakening of the clergy and the extended legal and illegal assaults leave the Patriarchate in a vulnerable position.

One cannot be assured if the integrity of the Genocide and other valuable documents have not yet been compromised.

The Armenian government nor the Supreme head of the church in Echmiadzin are not legally entitled to ask for  any accountability.

And so it goes.

 

 

 

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