Middle East

Jerusalem’s Armenians face uncertain future

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: One of the four quarters of old Jerusalem belongs to the Armenians, keepers of an ancient monastery and library, heirs to a tragic history and to a stubborn 1,600-year presence that some fear is now in doubt.

Buffeted by Middle Eastern forces more powerful than themselves and drawn by better lives elsewhere, this historic Jerusalem community has seen its numbers quietly drop below 1,000.

The Armenians, led by an ailing 94-year-old patriarch, find themselves caught between Jews and Muslims in a Middle East emptying of Christians, and between a deep sense of belonging in Jerusalem and a realization that their future might lie elsewhere.

“Very few will remain here if it goes on like this,” said Kevork Kahvedjian, a Jerusalem storeowner.

Kahvedjian sells vintage black-and-white photos of the Holy Land from a store founded in 1949 by his father, who arrived in Jerusalem as a child after mass killings of Armenians under Ottoman rule during World War I claimed his own parents.

Today, Kahvedjian said, he has siblings in Canada and the U.S., a son in Washington, D.C., and a daughter who plans to move away soon.

The insular world of the Jerusalem Armenians is reached through a modest iron door set in a stone wall.

The door, locked every night at 10:30 p.m., leads into a monastery compound that is home to a contingent of cloaked clergymen and also to several hundred Armenian laypeople.

Also inside is a library, a health center, two social clubs and a school where each grade now has an average of only six or seven pupils.

“We worry about this, of course. But we haven’t found a solution,” said Samuel Aghoyan, 71, one of the community’s senior priests.

The monastery, led by the patriarch Torkom Manoogian, 94, guards other secrets. It holds the world’s second-largest collection of ancient Armenian manuscripts, 4,000 texts guarded in a chapel opened only once a year.

The several dozen priests, most of whom are sent to Jerusalem by the church from elsewhere, will remain, as will their edifices and relics.

But the community itself, made up of laypeople subject to the pressures and pulls of this world, may not.

Aghoyan arrived at the monastery as a 16-year-old seminarian in 1956 from Syria, where his parents had fled from Turkey. He found the Jerusalem monastery crowded with families, most of them refugees or descendants of refugees who escaped the killings.

Many historians say up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, which they call the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey disputes this, saying the death toll has been inflated.

The resulting refugees swelled the small existing community of Armenian priests and laymen, and by the time Jerusalem was split between Jordan and Israel in 1948 the Armenians numbered over 25,000, by some counts.

They were traders and craftsmen whose distinctive mosaics of painted tiles remain one of the city’s signature design features.

The Armenians, along with Arab residents of East Jerusalem, were given residency rights in Israel, and some have since applied for full citizenship.

But the community has tried to plot a neutral course in a place where that is difficult. Ties with both Israelis and Palestinians have been tense at times.

Israel’s Interior Ministry does not have statistics on the number of Armenians. Community leaders like Aghoyan and Tsolag Momjian, the honorary consul of Armenia, agree there are now fewer than 1,000 in the city.

Young Armenians, expected to marry Armenians, are faced with a shortage of potential spouses. Because they are typically well-educated, fluent in English and have family connections abroad, they are equipped to leave.

“Whoever leaves still dreams about Jerusalem and says they’ll come back. But they won’t,” Aghoyan said.

Others are more optimistic. Ruppen Nalbandian, 29, a community youth leader with a master’s degree in neurobiology from an Israeli university, said the outflow has slowed.

Of 11 students in his class at school, he said, only two have left. Ten men he knows have found brides in Armenia and brought them back to Jerusalem, he said. “As we have lived here for 1,600 years, we will continue to live here,” Nalbandian said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 13, 2011, on page 9.




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