Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Giving no quarter, Jerusalem’s Armenians keep flame alive
The rare sense of space and calm that marks out the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City is both its blessing and its curse. The acquisition of the land, and construction of the beautiful St. James Cathedral at its heart, speaks volumes for the abilities of this small ethnic diaspora from the Caucasus to secure favour from the Ottoman sultans who partitioned the walled holy city in the hope of a bit of peace from religious rivalries.
But the limited, and shrinking population of the Armenians has made their Quarter an object of envy and desire for other groups, not least the fast-expanding Jewish Quarter next door, which has been massively rebuilt during 43 years of Israeli control after being ravaged during the period of Jordanian rule from 1948 to 1967.
The Church itself, proud of a tradition that it was an Armenian king in 301 who first adopted Christianity as a state religion (some years before the Roman Empire), is a solid fixture of Christian Jerusalem. The small ethnic Armenian lay community around it feels less sure of its future.
Having broken with authorities in Constantinople and Rome as early as the 6th century (in a complex dispute over the human and divine nature of Jesus), the Church later secured under the Ottoman-era status quo which still governs such matters a share of the tripartite governance of Jerusalem’s Christian holy sites, notably the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with the very much larger Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic denominations. The latter churches and a small community of their Arab Christian adherents dominate the Christian Quarter, leaving the Armenians in splendid, if potentially precarious, isolation in their own Armenian Quarter, following their distinctive traditions in their unfamiliar Indo-European tongue with its unique script.
Among challenges facing, the Armenians and the also dwindling populations of other Christian denominations is ensuring cooperation while retaining their distinct traditions. Inter-marriage among different Christian groups is seen by many as a welcome and inevitable way to maintain the communities, but also poses problems for those keen to maintain linguistic, religious and other differences.
Tensions, too, are frequent, not just with Jewish and Muslim populations in Jerusalem, but also within the holiest places of Christendom themselves. While the rich diversity of Christian worship in the city is a joy to many, scenes of armed Israeli police and troops having to pull rival priests, notably Greeks and Armenians, off each other within feet of Jesus’s tomb in recent times have done little to burnish the kind of ecumenism many church leaders preach.