BY NIR HASSON
JERUSALEM—President Reuven Rivlin disappointed the representatives of the Armenian community who visited him this week in the President’s Residence. It joins a long series of disappointments regarding the recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the world in general and by Israel in particular. The Armenians had pinned their hopes on Rivlin, who was always sympathetic towards them as a member of the Knesset and Knesset Speaker.
The Armenian representative at the President’s Residence, Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, had harsh words for Rivlin: “I’m disappointed and I believe that members of the Armenian community are also disappointed at the use of the words ‘mass killing’ as opposed to genocide,” he said. “Mr. President, this was a backward step on your part. You should have been more courageous as president as you were in the Knesset, and said: What was perpetrated against the Armenians was genocide, mass extermination.”
The Armenian Patriarch in Jerusalem, Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, also expressed his disappointment with Israel’s policy towards the genocide and the entire Armenian community in an interview with Haaretz. The leader of the Armenian community in Israel reminded those who prefer to forget that Christian clergymen, however senior they may be, cannot walk around freely in the streets of Jerusalem.
Manougian was born in 1948 in Aleppo, Syria to a family of genocide survivors, and first came to Jerusalem in 1966. Since then, he has served in a series of positions in the Armenian Church all over the world, including Holland and the United States, where he lived for 20 years. In 1998 he returned to Jerusalem and was elected to the Supreme Spiritual Council of the patriarchy. Two years ago he was chosen to replace the deceased patriarch Torkom Manoogian.
The events marking the centenary of the Armenian genocide began last Friday, at the end of Israel’s Independence Day, with an exceptional tribute to the Armenians by the various Christian communities in Jerusalem’s Old City. Most of the church bells in the Old City rang 100 times to commemorate the 100 years since the murders.
On Friday there was a special prayer service in the Armenian Church and a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial for the massacred. As is the case every year, no official government representative attended the ceremony. The Armenians made do with the presence of Meretz Member of the Knesset Zehava Galon, whose party has long been leading the campaign for recognition of the Armenian genocide. “The Israeli government participates in the denial of the Armenian genocide,” said Galon.
Still, the Armenians could console themselves with a small step forward on the part of Israel, when the Knesset sent two members, Nahman Shai (Zionist Union) and Anat Berko (Likud) as an official delegation to the memorial events in Armenia. In spite of that, Archbishop Manougian is not optimistic.
“Sending two MKs is a good start, I hope that things will change, but with the business that they’re now conducting with Azerbaijan, I don’t think things will change,” he says.
“I hope that it won’t take us another 100 years to gain recognition. The Turks want us to forget, they tell themselves that we’ll probably get tired. We’re trying to show them that they’re mistaken, that we remember and demand – we demand justice of course, for a start.”
Manougian says that the Jews and the Armenians have a similar history. “You lost a lot of people, six million, we lost a million-and-a-half. But the main difference between your Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide is that we were thrown out of our own historic country.” He adds that the Israelis should feel safe with the Armenians. “We are like you. You are like us. You have to understand us. You have to treat us differently – we’re part of this place, we went through the same experiences, the same fate.”
If in the past the good relations with Turkey were the explanation for Israel’s failure to recognize the Armenian genocide, now the good and important relationship with Azerbaijan, which borders Iran, are the interest that serves to justify the failure. Azerbaijan is Israel’s main oil supplier, a buyer of Israeli weapons and an ally in the anti-Iran coalition. “There’s a new excuse for us to avoid our obligation,” said Galon at last week’s ceremony.
Armenia takes pride in being the first country in history to accept Christianity as a state religion, in 301 CE, and in the fact that the Armenian community was one of the first to settle in Jerusalem. This history gives the Armenians an exceptional foothold in the holy places in Israel. “We are a small nation of 10 million and our rights are equal to those of one billion Catholics and 500,000 in the Greek Orthodox Church,” says Manougian, who is a guardian of Armenian rights in the holy places. Manougian is the 97th patriarch of the Armenian Church, but the challenge to maintaining these rights is increasing. The patriarch doesn’t feel that Israel is helping him in this task.
A familiar problem reappeared at the memorial events for the genocide, one which is shared by all Christian clergymen in Jerusalem from all the denominations – spitting. Several girls, known to be extreme right-wing activists, were involved in two separate instances of spitting and cursing at participants in the march commemorating the 100th anniversary of the genocide. In both cases, they were finally confronted by young men from the Armenian community, who removed them from the site. Eyewitnesses said that only then did the police intervene and detain them for questioning.
“These things happen all the time. It’s become worse in recent years,” says the patriarch. “Wherever we go, either the police will stop us, because they don’t know whether we’re Arabs or Christians, whatever, or they spit on us. In Tel Aviv and Haifa it’s different. But here in Jerusalem, they look at you like you’re an enemy, like you’re a terrorist. That’s the mentality.”
He himself was arrested about two years ago by two female Border Police officers. Even the special card he carries that identifies him as a “religious leader” didn’t help until the intervention of an officer, an adviser on Christian affairs with the Jerusalem District Police.
Another problem that concerns Manoughian is the dwindling of the community in Israel. Of the 35,000 Armenians who were living here at the end of the British Mandate in 1948 (most of whom had fled from eastern Turkey due to the genocide), only about 3,000 remain in Israel. About 800 of them live in the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, which is actually a medieval monastery that opened its doors 100 years ago to take in the refugees from the genocide, and since then has been serving as both as a monastery and as an ordinary residential neighborhood.
The community and the church are dependent on novice priests who come to study in the city, some of whom become the priests and monks who maintain the church and surrounding monastery. In the past they would come from Turkey and Lebanon, but both governments are now making it difficult to come to Israel to study. That’s why the Jerusalem patriarchate is trying to recruit young men from the villages in Armenia. But the lack of an Israeli embassy in Armenia means the young men have to travel to the embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, for their visas.
“Russians don’t need a visa. When [former interior minister] Gideon Sa’ar visited here, I asked him to waive visas for Armenians too, but they didn’t get back to me,” claims the patriarch. “These are children of 14 and 15. We’re asking you to help us.”
Up until a few years ago Jerusalem was the scene of serious conflicts, to the point of violent skirmishes, between believers from the various Christian denominations. There was great tension, especially between the two leading Eastern Orthodox churches in the city — the Greek Orthodox and the Armenians. The violence usually surrounded the events of the holy fire ceremony on the Sabbath of Light, at the height of the Easter holiday. This year, as in recent years, quiet was maintained with the help of hundreds of policemen and Yasam Special Patrol Unit fighters.
“It looked like a military camp, there were so many soldiers,” complains Manougian. “Relations with the churches are good. Occasionally there are problems, but it’s tradition and we have to adhere to tradition.”
There was a reminder of this tension about two weeks ago, when Rivlin visited the church leaders in honor of the Easter holiday. Rivlin decided to conduct the visit (which is quite unusual, since usually the community leaders are invited to the President’s Residence) at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. The Armenians did not send a representative. “I was ill and I couldn’t come, the Greeks informed us at the last moment,” says the patriarch. But he added, “He should have come here, the Armenians are your only friends.”