JERUSALEM (Reuters) - In Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter, a library stores precious memoirs which are all that remain of hundreds of Armenian communities, erased from the map of Turkey a century ago in what many regard as genocide.
Now the Armenians in Jerusalem itself, many descended from refugees, fear their own 1,500-year-old Christian presence may disappear, too. Their society and extensive landholdings risk becoming collateral damage in a demographic conflict for land and power in the holy city between Israel and the Palestinians.
“It’s a dying community. Only the church holds us together,” lamented 97-year-old Arshalouys Zakarian, as she sat with family and friends in her garden near St. James’s Armenian cathedral.
The church, with its distinctive rites and dozens of black clad singing monks, dominates a Quarter which the Armenians, now just 2,000 of them, have held since Ottoman times alongside the Old City’s bigger Muslim, Jewish and Christian Quarters.
Over tea, Zakarian’s guests, some living locally, others back on visits from overseas, joined in tales of children gone abroad in search of jobs and of struggles, often in vain, with Israeli bureaucracy to retain rights to come back home to live.
“For the first time in our history, we are not sure we can stay, after 1,500 years,” concluded one man, now working for the Armenian church after a career spent in the United States. His daughter, born here, can visit, but may no longer live here.
Officials of the church, at the Armenian Patriarchate, share a view held by the mostly Muslim Palestinians — that Israel’s designation of the whole city as capital of the Jewish state means its control of residence and building permits is being used to press Arabs and other non-Jews to give up and leave.
“The withdrawing of ID cards is becoming very serious,” said historian George Hintlian, a former Patriarchate secretary. Five local-born Armenians lost residence rights last month, he added.
Non-Jews, a third of today’s 750,000 population in greater Jerusalem, have had residence rights but not citizenship since Israel seized the Arab east, including the Old City, from Jordan in 1967. Israel, which promotes Jewish immigration, says it is not obliged to grant re-entry to other residents who emigrate.
It says it respects the access of other faiths to Jerusalem and denies any policy to discriminate or to push non-Jews out. But the Armenians see double standards and fear for their land.
In the library, Hintlian leafs through volumes of memoirs detailing names, families, anecdotes, plans and sketches of lost Armenian communities in Turkey, from where refugees came to Jerusalem after World War One, bolstering the local population.
“What remains of historical Armenia is these books. For a people who suffered genocide, it is very important,” he said.
But while many Jews had sympathy for a people whose history of dispersal and suffering has echoes of their own, Armenians are wary of the Israeli state: “For the private Israeli, we are full-time genocide survivors,” Hintlian said. “But for the Israeli bureaucracy, we are full-time Palestinians.”
Many fear territorial designs on their Quarter, which covers a sixth of the square kilometre (230 acres) inside the walls but houses only a small fraction of the Old City’s 40,000 people. It lies next to the Jewish Quarter, ravaged under Jordanian rule after 1948. Israelis have rebuilt and expanded it since 1967.
A rash of spitting at clergy in the street by ultra-Orthodox Jews in recent years add to a sense of siege among a community which traces its roots back to monks and pilgrims who settled in the 5th century. By the mid-1940s, the community numbered 16,000 across Jerusalem and other cities of British-ruled Palestine.
Many were refugees from Turkey who revived Armenian language among native compatriots assimilated in Arabic. They brought, too, colourful ceramic work which still fills their shops today.
Many left when British rule ended in 1948. More followed in 1967. Those who stayed on in the Old City under Israeli rule were cut off from 400,000 other Armenians in the Middle East — in countries like Syria and Lebanon, at war with Israel.
They are part of a global diaspora of 10 million whose language and religious roots lie in a Caucasian kingdom that was the first to adopt Christianity as a state religion, in 301.
St. James’s Cathedral is a serene jewel, hung with precious lamps and treasures donated by Armenians scattered far and wide and infused with the haunting singing of its black-cowled monks.
The Armenian Church has parity at Jerusalem’s Christian holy places with the much bigger Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches, 6,000 of whose Palestinian Arab adherents live in the Christian Quarter. Its history, income from local rents and gifts from the diaspora, should assure the Church’s future here.
But the lay community surrounding it does question whether future generations will be here; residents say Armenians feel disadvantaged in getting work with Jewish or Arab employers and so move abroad and then face Israeli refusal to allow them back.
“It’s a demographic struggle,” said Hintlian, as he strolled the quiet courtyards that distinguish the Quarter from the crowded lanes typical of the rest of the Old City. “The basic struggle is to have numbers,” he added. “Diplomats say, ‘Look, the Armenians have a lot of space and very few people...’.”
Among Armenian fears is that Israel and Palestinian peace negotiators might revive an idea to divide sovereignty over the Old City by allotting the Muslim and Christian Quarters to a Palestinian state and handing the Armenian Quarter to Israel.
The end of Communism in Armenia has thrown a lifeline to the church, bringing a supply of novices from the ex-Soviet state, said Archbishop Nourhan Manoogian, who himself came from Syria just before the 1967 war. But having returned now from 20 years abroad, he too faces a problem renewing his residence permit.
“What kind of freedom of religion is there?” he asked.
Life can be uncomfortable beyond the walls of the monastery compound. Relations with Muslims have cooled, Manoogian said. There have been fights between Armenian and Greek clergy around Jesus’s tomb. And some ultra-Orthodox Jews are openly hostile.
But, consoled by a history that has seen Armenians survive bloodier sieges and regimes in Jerusalem down the centuries, Manoogian has confidence after four decades of Israeli rule:
“In another 40 years, we’ll still be here,” he said.
And for all the anxieties that tinge the nostalgia round the tea table in Arshalouys Zakarian’s garden, there too there is a note of cheerful defiance: “The Armenians had a hard life,” the retired schoolmistress concluded. “But they are survivors.”
Editing by Samia Nakhoul