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‘Living Here Is Complicated’

Jerusalem’s Armenians maintain their identity

by Michele Chabin

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A happy cacophony of Arabic, Armenian, English and Hebrew floats through the colorful hallways of the Sts. Tarkmanchatz Armenian School of Jerusalem, where 120 students spend four periods a day, every day, intensively learning the languages — in addition to math, science and Armenian history.

That the school, the pride of Jerusalem’s tiny Armenian Christian community, places such an emphasis on language skills is a matter of necessity, says Mihran Der Matossian, vice principal.

“Our students learn Armenian because it is our national language and our identity. Students take the British matriculation exams, so they need to know English. And they learn Hebrew and Arabic on a high level because we live among Israelis and Palestinians and it is difficult to mingle and find a job without these languages,” Mr. Der Matossian says.

For Jerusalem’s Armenian Christians, maintaining their rich Armenian heritage, where the dominant Israeli and Palestinian cultures collide, is a formidable task. This challenge has increased of late as the number of Armenians, as with those of other local Christian communities, has been decimated by decades of emigration.

Of the world’s estimated 10 million Armenians, an estimated 600,000 live in the Middle East — not including up to a million Turks who conceal their Armenian origins and their Christian faith. Prior to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the Armenian community in what was known as British Mandate Palestine included up to 15,000 people. Fewer than 3,000 remain, with about a thousand living in the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem and the rest in Bethlehem, Haifa, Jaffa, Ramallah and Ramleh, where, according to church sources, viable communities have evolved around the nucleus of Armenian culture — a church or monastery.

Today the vast majority of Armenians in Israel and Palestine are “Western Armenians,” that is, descendants of Armenians who hail from Anatolia, speak a dialect known as Western Armenian and have a long history in the region. Some have ancestors who survived the mass killings of Armenians perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I, and sought refuge in British-controlled Jerusalem. Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, they were joined by more than 1,500 “Eastern Armenians,” men and women from the former Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic who had married Soviet Jews and settled in Israel with their spouses.

Uniting this small flock is the head of the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Patriarch Nourhan, and the Brotherhood of St. James, a monastic community of the Armenian Apostolic patriarchate with some 60 members. Together with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, the Armenian patriarchate functions as a custodian of the major holy sites associated with the life of Christ, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

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