Armenian Christmas Becomes National Holiday in Lebanon

LEBANON (The Daily Star)-Orthodox and Protestant Armenia’s who observed Christmas Monday had something extra to celebrate in Lebanon this year: the Lebanese Government recognized the day as a national public holiday.

But reactions among some of the thousands of people attending holiday services at the Armenian Orthodox Catholicosate of Cilicia in Antelias ranged from heartfelt gratitude to suspicion of government motives behind the move.

"This is the first time in the history of Lebanon that Armenia’s are feeling fulfilled because of this decision for which we thank the government," said Krikor Payaslian–a young businessman who lives in Hamra. "The decision of the Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to make January 6 a public holiday is a great honor for Armenia’s. Even though there is a lot of politicking taking place in all this–this decision is nonetheless very important in terms of giving Armenia’s greater recognition of our rights."

"It is very nice that the Christian Armenian Holy Christmas has been officially recognized," said Marlene Khanadanian–a member of the Armenian Catholicosate University Students Association. "It’s great that the Lebanese government appreciates this. This means that we are slowly gaining our rights here in Lebanon."

The student association meets every week under the sponsorship of the Armenian Catholicos of Cilicia–Aram I Keshishian–to organize activities and discussions.

Some Lebanese-Armenia’s from the older generation attending the Christmas service were also grateful–but quick to suspect political motives behind the move–however.

"This should have been done a long time ago," said Kevork Kandaharian–who has been teaching ancient Armenian literature at the Antelias Seminary of Cilicia for the past forty years. "This is a very good–because it is a way of giving Armenia’s their right to co-exist."

"I think [the holiday] is one-hundred percent politically motivated," said Sarkis Karamanoukian–a Bourj Hammoud silversmith. "The government doesn’t care about us. They only care about us when they need us. I think this holiday was recognized–because Hariri needs our vote. With thirty ministers currently in the government–it’s our right–according to the Taif Agreement–to have two seats in the government–not just one-like we have now. They’re not giving us our rights."

Sports and Youth Minister Sebouh Hounanian is the only Armenian in the Cabinet-a fact that angered the community when the government was formed in 2000–and continues to be touchy issue.

Hagop Chebaklian–a sound operator at the Armenian-language radio station Vanatsayn–also argued for greater Armenian representation in the government.

"Its a good first step–but it definitely isn’t enough when you think of the missing second Armenian in the government," said Chebaklian. "But it’s still a good feeling because although we were–until now–only recognized as one of the communities in Lebanon."

But Beirut MP Hagop Kassardjian–one of six Armenian legislators–rejects the idea of any connection between making the day an official public holiday and the missing second Armenian seat in the government.

"They have nothing to do with one another. One is political; the other has to do with the rights of a community," he said. "But in the next government to be formed," he added–"the issue of the second Armenian ministerial seat will be corrected." Prelate slams exploitation of religion During his Christmas sermon on Monday–Catholicos Aram I Keshishian of the House of Cilicia–addressed the issue.

The Catholicos said it was "not acceptable at all" for religion to serve political or other ends. He added that the "schism" between the state and the people was "gradually growing."

"There can be no peace without justice–as justice is a gift from God and peace is its fruit," he said. He also called on Christianity and Islam to serve as an "example of peaceful coexistence throughout the world," saying that Lebanon was based on coexistence and this gave it its "unique character."

"We in Lebanon do not talk–and should not talk–about dialogue or even coexistence–but about living together and continuing to do so," he added.

Keshishian also spoke of the "problems" of the Lebanese people who–he said–were "losing confidence in the state."

"Instead on giving due attention to basic issues–the state is preoccupied with minor and secondary matters–and the economic and social situation of the people is deteriorating day after day," he said.

"Even more–the phenomenon of violence is gradually spreading across the country and this disturbing phenomenon may cause instability. It is the authorities’ duty to impose and maintain security and thus prove its effective presence in all Lebanese territory," he added. Turning to Armenian issues–he said that the community was not being given its rights and all "clarifications and justifications given in this respect are unacceptable."

He appealed to government leaders to "take into consideration our community’s rights and give it due importance–ensuring an effective participation that truly represents it."

At the same time–the prelate called on Armenian parties–ministers and legislators to distance themselves from personal interests and work jointly to ensure the community’s rights and a "more effective participation in political life."

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