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Armenians have been associated with the Holy Land”s most sacred Christian sites since the fourth century, when pilgrims from the Armenian kingdom, the first state to declare Christianity its official religion in the year 301, traveled to the holy city of Jerusalem. Between the fourth and eighth centuries Armenians constructed and decorated some 70 monasteries, which housed priests and monks as well as pilgrims who continued to journey long after the Muslim Arab invasion in the seventh century.

Although there has been a continuous presence since, the Armenian community has never recovered from the first Arab-Israeli war. Many Armenians suffered the same losses as Arab Christians and Muslims, fleeing first to Lebanon or Jordan. From there, they left eventually for points west. Today, those who remain fear their children will do the same.

While the Armenian community’s elders encourage the younger generation to obtain a higher education, they acknowledge many of those who go abroad will be reluctant to return.

“A lot of my friends have left, mostly to Europe and the United States, and I doubt they’ll come back,” says Hasmig Kalaydjian, an Armenian teacher in her 20’s pursuing a degree at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Living here is complicated.”

“Once the young have experienced life abroad, it’s hard to come back,” acknowledges Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, the Armenian patriarchate‚Äôs director of ecumenical affairs.

“There is always the fear of another war.”

The shortage of affordable housing in Israel is another cause of emigration, and not just for Armenians. The patriarchate, which already houses more than 500 people in the Armenian Quarter compound, lacks the financial resources to help all those in need of housing — the patriarchate is largely dependent on the rental income it receives from its properties and support from the Armenian diaspora.

As with other churches in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, the Armenian patriarchate must secure visas for its foreign clergy and seminarians from Israel’s Interior Ministry. It can take months or even years to obtain a visa for a student or teacher from Armenia. Even priests who are permanently based in Israel must extend their visas once a year, Patriarch Nourhan of Jerusalem told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in January 2013.

Making matters worse: Christians have become targets of young ultra-Orthodox Jewish extremists, who sometimes spit on priests in the streets of the Old City.

“It’s a real problem,” says the Rev. Dirran Hagopian, a young priest, standing outside the Armenian Cathedral of Sts. James in Jerusalem. “Two days ago, I was with a group of pilgrims from Armenia when a yeshiva student spit on me. When a policeman arrived, he asked to see the spit.

“There’s no point in filing a complaint because we know nothing will be done.”

“They do it because they don’t get a proper education about Christians, and based on hatred of Christians due to Christian anti-Semitism,” says Rabbi Ron Kronish, founder of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, which has organized Christian-Jewish encounters and solidarity visits to various churches to combat the problem.

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