The children of Gregorios the Illuminator, the Armenians in Jerusalem
It really makes sense to live in Jerusalem or to serve there. it is always significant and full of signs, insights to reckon and count days and “glimpses” received the Highest.
Twenty-one years ago, the Armenian Soviet Union Republic became an independent country, apparently free from the Caucasian neighboring State (Azerbaidjan) and, mainly the Russian Federation. It was on October 21st, 1991. Ever since the country had to face terrible economic hardships and mishaps. The Armenian Church is very old, once of the most ancient autonomous Churches. It allowed Armenia to become the first Christian State in the world in 301 AD when Saint Gregorios the Illuminator confirmed the faith that had initially been brought into the area by the Apostle Thaddaeus and Bartholomaeus.
On the upcoming October 28, 2012, the Roman Christian Churches (Both Orthodox and Catholic as present in the Roman Empire) will celebrate the 1700th anniversary of the victory at the Milvius Bridge. Emperor Constantine had the vision that by the Sign of Christ, he would be victorious. It was in 312 AD. and the Edict of Milan that recognized Christendom with more tolerance than full acceptance was taken a year later at Nis (Serbia) in 313 AD.
The Armenians got “self-controlled”. They left the Common Church of the origins in 351 while the Byzantine Patriarchate of Jerusalem got full “independence”…
Today, on October 22, 2012, Patriarch Torkom/Torgom of the Apostolic Armenian Church in Jerusalem has been buried close to Mount Zion where there are many sectors dedicated to the main ancient local Churches in Eretz Israel. He was 93 years old. The noticeable aspect is that he was born in the desert, as his parents were fleeing the 1915 genocide perpetrated against the Armenians. indeed, other inhabitants and Christians have been persecuted by then, but the Armenian genocide is special because of its peculiar constant backgrounds.
Patriarch Torkom has served for years in the United States. He arrived very early at Jerusalem. The Armenian Church has a great library at the Saint James Convent in Jerusalem. Over the long period of his service at the head of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, many works have been conducted: at the Holy Sepulcher, the Armenians are present with their part of the (Armenian) Golgotha, that is going further till the church that is located down the stairs, on the way to the place where Saint Helena found the True Cross. On the right, many excavations have been done, surveys and different drawings, writings were found showing the most ancient historicity of the location.
Torkom Manoogian, as most of the Armenians of the region, was a survivor. This is quite a problem till now for many countries in the world that are not likely to recognize the authenticity of the “genocide”. It is a pending question for the Israeli State. Many people think that the Jewish authorities are not ready to recognize the Armenian genocide due to the special relationships of the Hebrew State with Turkey. The argument may make some sense, not to the full.
Israel is rather suspicious about the non-recognition of the Holocaust-Shoah. The extermination of the Jews is often denied, mainly by the local Holy Land Christian Churches. Israel is hardly recognized as well. Raphael Lemkin – the renown Jewish and Polish lawyer who “invented” the word “genocide” during the Nürnberg Trial – could hardly define what mass murders of such intense and dramatic consequences could mean. The case of the Jews is special because constant pre-Christian and Christian era pogroms, plundering, killings against the Jews did aim at annihilating and wipe out, erase the “Divine” call of the Jews to witness to the Creator.
When the Jewish State was created, in 1949, the new State became responsible for the Christian Holy Places in the Holy Land. It got enlarged after 1967. The Christian Churches had not anticipated such a renewal of Jewish life and religion as such. For many, “deicide” may have been banned from the usual speech, but it is still very present. It concerns all the denominations… as curiously also those that may seem to defend Judaism. The main issue is “superseding” and in the realm of faith, there has always been a strong competition that consists in “getting all into one” but consider that each creed and its group is better than any other.
The Jewish community’s experiences – may be too much – the reality of being left aside when Israel calls for assistance and full recognition. At the present, “Shoah” is strangely commemorated by the Catholic Church on a day that is not the same as the one chosen by the Jewish community! In the Slavic area, the old place of extermination of the Jews (Baby Yar) is venerated as a place where “Ukrainians or Russians” have been executed. This is a real process of “superseding”.
It may come in the end that Israel will recognize the Armenian “genocide” as such because of the very similar fate that both Jewish and Armenian communities had to face for the sake of the Lord.
Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, born in Haifa in 1936 has been elected to work as Locum Tenens, as acting Armenian Patriarch till the new patriarch be elected in forty days.
We have to look at the maps. The former Ottoman Empire is on the spot and “quakes, shakes, quivers”. This is true in the Mashrek and the Maghreb, i.e. in most of the areas where the Ottoman rule was in force till the fall of the monarchy in Turkey on November 1, 1922, i.e. 90 years ago in one month. The Armenian Apostolic Church is present on most continents at the present. Its cradle is located in the Near and Middle-East, torn by permanent conflicts over the ages in the Caucasus, part of Turkey, Kurdistan, moving to the West and to the East, along with previously Roman and Persian Empire territories, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt down to Ethiopia. It prolongs its influence to present India, which should also be taken into consideration.
Indeed, Caliph Omar I (Ibn al-Khattab) came to an agreement in 636-7 with the head of all the Christian denominations, Patriarch Sophronios of Jerusalem. Mar Sophronios could convince Omar not to destroy the holiest places of worship for the Christians (as listed then: the Armenians were counted as among the local believers). This was signed by Omar as the leader of the Muslim emerging “faith and international power”. It is known as the “Achtiname or Decree/Covenant of Omar Ibn-al-Khattab, Umariyya Covenant” in 637. The Muslim leader accepted, in the name of the Prophet and the nascent Umma, to recognize the right of the Christian communities to continue to worship in Jerusalem (Church of the Anastasis or Holy Sepulcher) and Bethlehem (Church of the Nativity).
Patriarch Sophronios led then Umar to all of the Holy Places in Jerusalem, and also to the Temple Mount where the Caliph decided to build some very simple prayer “hut” made of branches.
This implies that the Christian denominations surrendered to the Muslim power in April 637. We still live under the decision that has been passed by that time. Umar was very respectful toward the Christians. he avoided entering into the Holy Sepulcher in order to spare the holy site and not to cause some conflicts with the Muslims.
The Umariyya Covenant has been in force till our days and the present national and religious governing and ruling authorities. The Achtiname is mentioned by the Eastern Orthodox Churches during their meetings in the Middle-East. They track back to the experience f the local Christians throughout the centuries to pave the way to the future.
It is not easy. The Western Churches often adopted a “post-colonial” attitude that still includes very “colonialistic” considerations. The Latin Patriarchate and the Franciscan Custodia of the Holy Land maintain their control over a vast region that extends from Cyprus through Turkey, the Middle-East and Egypt. The map is quite the same for other Churches (Antioch, Jerusalem are smaller). The territory does not take into account the changes that happened after the collapse of Ottoman rule.
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna wrote dissertations on Patriarch Sophronios. It is quite coherent, not only because he always had been interested in the Oriental and Orthodox Churches. It is obvious so far Austria and the Habsburg Austrian Hungarian had stopped with much difficulty the Ottomans in Vienna (1683). At the Rum-Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, we also have students who work on this subject because it is at the core of the situation.
Things seem to be frozen or “on a chilly stand-by”. Interestingly, the Covenant of Omar is much read and gives way to many contradictory interpretations. The local Churches crossed the ages because they could insightfully approach the development of Muslim power. The same occurs at the present with the intriguing agreements passed by the Patriarchate of Jerusalem with Qatar and in its talks with the other Arabic Peninsula states.
In 638, Caliph Omar appointed an Armenian Patriarch in Jerusalem. The assignment was made before 351 AD. when the Armenian Church broke with the One Church of that time (with the exception of the Assyrian/Nestorian Church that had left at Ephesus, 325 A.D.). This decision initiated a progressive split among the local Christians. Of course, the Armenians left, followed by the Syrian-Orthodox (mentioned as “Jacobites” in the Decree), the Copts and the Abyssinians (sic for Ethiopians).
It should be noted that the procedure of making such an appointment is typical for all the rulers. The same happened in Poland, France, Russia whose leaders wanted to cause disagreements or hatred, the opposition between different denominations or nations. Jerusalem is indeed a good place for spiritual and human or religious zigzagging. It is the navel or center of the combat between Good and Evil, Divine Presence and Satan, the Devil.
The Decree has something more that is rarely mentioned in the context of the Churches: Caliph Omar also allowed the Jews to come back and freely worship in Jerusalem and the “Eretz”.
This point is special. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of World War II, Europe went through the collapse of the traditional European empires (Habsburg, German Reich, Russia and other States that had become “kingdoms” after World War I). Today, Europe endeavors both to unite and to segment into small “national” or “clerical” entities. On the other hand, the Ottoman Empire gives no clutch to any former colonial power.
The British Mandate, the Jordanian and then Israeli rule over the Holy Land did not abrogate the Decree. The local faithful of the Churches are well aware of this situation. The Israeli State started to act with much respect to all the denominations. There are numerous documents issued by the Knesset during the War of Independence that prove a real concern to take decisions on the Churches or religions with a spirit of righteousness.
The State of Israel took over the most sacred and holiest religious sites of Christianity in 1967. The Israeli government firstly had the competent personnel to handle these matters. At present, things got too embattled. The Churches – all of them – often behave as if their presence was of “divine right” and they would not accept or recognize the authority of any government. This is quite the case with regards to general “ambiguous” attitudes of the local Churches toward the Hebrew State. They had been trained to comply with the requirement of the Arab authorities. The Palestinian Authority exercises a Muslim power – this should be tracked back to the time of the Ottoman empire and the Omar Decree.
The foreign Churches based throughout the world do not reflect upon their being “in exile” from Jerusalem! This is why traditionally strong-minded and deciding Churches (Rome and the Eastern rite Patriarchates” who were “conceded the Communion” (sic) with the See of Rome and Moscow, Beograd, Tbilisi, Bucharest among other jurisdictions) are at pains to really act in the place of the local Churches.
The future of the Armenian Church appears to be “endangered” in the Middle-East. The Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, Mesrob Mutafyan, has to be replaced [Nota: indeed, On 11 December 2019, Sahak II Mashalian was elected new patriarch]. The election of a new patriarch had been postponed on a regular basis. In the meanwhile, some churches are reopened in Turkey and Armenians that had been forcibly converted to Islam may return to their Mother Church.
In Jerusalem and Israel, many Armenian seminarists arrived from Arab regions but could not find their way locally. Nowadays, many youths come from the Armenian Republic. They speak Russian and often study in Moscow or Saint-Peterburg. The local population often assimilates to the Israeli society. Administrative problems should be treated with respect. The Church has been present in the Land from the very beginning of Christianity. The history of the Armenians should also be taken into consideration provided that all accept the laws in force.
True, the Armenian clergy – just as the Orthodox clergy and others – is often mocked by some “fanatics”. People are prejudiced in ways due to ignorance: no, the Inquisition never took place in the East! On the other hand, it is difficult to overcome “ethnic” prejudices often based on mutual irrational and non-connecting slander.
Patriarch Torkom was brought to earth at Zion, where it is said “that all (living) were born there” (Psalm 87:5) after the Church of Jerusalem had celebrated the memory of Saint James Alphaeus and on the eve of the feast of Mar Yaakov, Saint James the Proto-hierarch of Jerusalem and Adelphotheos (Brother of the Lord) also positively mentioned as a “just” in the Talmudic treaty Gittin. Yes, the feast starts now for the Gregorian Western calendar and will be “efficient” in thirteen days at Jerusalem.
Nonetheless, the Armenian Church is wide, great, venerable. The task will be immense, but it is a test to see how the Churches can walk onward into the XXIst century for the sake of redemption.
Archpriest av Aleksandr (Winogradsky Frenkel)