The Armenian Christian community caught between Israelis and Palestinians

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(RNS) – The Armenian Christian Quarter of Jerusalem dates back to the 4th century, when a small group of pilgrims and monks from newly Christianized Armenia – 800 miles away on the other side of Turkey – settled in the area around the Upper House, the building thought to be the site of the Last Supper. Today, Armenians still occupy much of the Old City where the Armenian Apostolic Church, under the Independent Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, maintains its own chapels and a school.

Simon Azazian, communications director at the Palestinian Bible Society whose father is Armenian and Palestinian Arab mother, says positive relations between Armenians and their Palestinian neighbors, like many in Jerusalem, have a long history. “The Armenians helped with the ceramics in the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” ​​he notes, referring to the eighth-century place of worship, the third holiest site in Islam.

But recently, unused and rubble-filled land has caused friction between the former Christian community and the local Palestinian community, which administratively controls East Jerusalem despite Israel’s long-standing military occupation and effective annexation of the area. .

A map of the neighborhoods that make up the Old City of Jerusalem. Courtesy card

The Armenians say they have called on the Palestinian government and others to help them restore the land – estimates for clearing the rubble alone are $ 2 million – but none came to fruition. Eventually, the Armenians turned to the Israeli Municipality of Jerusalem, which, along with the Jewish nationalist Jerusalem Development Co., agreed to help remove the mounds of dirt and prepare a parking lot, on condition that at least 90 spaces be reserved for residents of the Jewish Quarter and visitors to the neighboring Western Wall.

The 10-year contract for the parking lot, which will take effect on January 1, has angered Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians who fear the deal will further strengthen Jewish control over occupied East Jerusalem.

“Once the Israelis gain a foothold in the Old City, no power on earth will remove them,” said a senior Palestinian official who asked not to be named because of his sensitive stance on Christian religious issues.

But in a 10-point statement, the Armenian Patriarchate, which owns the land, said it had no choice.

“This is a financial obligation that the Patriarchate alone does not have the capacity to assume,” he said. The car park, adds the press release, “will remain private and the management and ownership of the car park will remain in the hands of the Patriarchate”.

The controversy has taken on heightened importance due to a recent rise in anti-Christian sentiment among Palestinians. A late-December memo from the Hamas-led Islamic Guidance Office calling on Islamic clergy to reject “Christmas culture” leaked to the press. To make matters worse, the note, which has since been retracted, used the English word for Christmas, an indirect signal that Christianity is a foreign religion.

On Saturday, December 26, two large Christmas trees on display in the city of Sakhnin in the Galilee were set on fire by an unknown arsonist. On the same day, a Palestinian from Hebron was filmed mocking the Church of the Nativity and the Christmas tree in Bethlehem. While both events were strongly condemned, some observers say they reflect underlying political and socio-economic tensions between Palestinian Muslims and Christians who speak religiously due to the season.

A man holds a work of art from Dadivank, a 9th-century Armenian Apostolic Church monastery, as ethnic Armenians leave the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia on November 14, 2020. The territory was handed over to Azerbaijan as part of territorial concessions as part of an agreement ending six weeks of heavy fighting with Armenian forces. Hundreds of thousands of Azeris, mostly Muslims, were displaced by the war that ended in 1994. (AP Photo / Dmitry Lovetsky)

Azazian noted that the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, in which Turkey sided with Azerbaijani Muslims against Armenians, recently poisoned the atmosphere. But others point to dying hopes for a peace deal that would end Israeli pressure on the Palestinian territories.

“As long as we live without a viable solution, radicalism increases because many also believe that the West, which is predominantly Christian, is not taking viable measures to end the current political reality of the occupation”, Vera Baboun, former mayor of Bethlehem, told Religion News Service.

Indeed, the discussions on the parking lot of the Armenians are taking place in the direction of an international negotiation. The Higher Presidential Committee for Ecclesiastical Affairs in Palestine wrote to Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manoogian to remind him that the Armenian Quarter is part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories under UN resolutions, including UNSCR 2334 of 2017.

A letter signed by Ramzi Khoury, the director of the Church Affairs committee, called on the Armenian Patriarch “to comply with international law” and noted that Israel has “expansionist ambitions” in the Old City.

Khoury told RNS that Palestinians have always viewed the Armenian Quarter as part of the future Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. During the Camp David talks in 2000, PA President Yasser Arafat refused to concede the Armenian quarter to the Israelis, jokingly calling himself “Arafatian” – Armenian surnames usually end with “ian” . Armenians have also always maintained that the Palestinian Christian and Armenian neighborhoods are “inseparable”.

And the patriarchate’s statement makes it clear that despite their collaboration in the parking lot, Armenians don’t like Israel. In March, Israeli police fined a young Jew for spitting at an Armenian bishop a year earlier – an act Armenian clergy say is not uncommon.

The patriarchate statement also explained that “in the next ten years, once the patriarchate has finalized and received all building permits, the patriarchate will start a new construction which will benefit the Armenian community.”

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