Facing Erasure, Jerusalem’s Armenian Community Celebrates a Gloomy Christmas

In detail: In the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, Armenians are preparing to celebrate Christmas. But this year, in the face of an upsurge in attacks on the community and rising coronavirus cases, the streets of the Armenian Quarter are quiet.

Shop after shop and restaurant after restaurant are almost all closed as you walk the narrow, cobbled streets of Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter. With the latest wave of coronavirus sweeping the country, Christmas for the Palestinian-Armenian community is becoming less and less of a community holiday.

While Armenians around the world celebrate Christmas on January 6, Armenians in the Holy Land are the only group to celebrate the holiday on the 18th and 19th of the month. Indeed, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem follows the Julian calendar, which is 13 days after the Gregorian calendar.

Calendar differences mean that the Christmas season is long in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Armenian Jerusalemites typically gather with their families on December 24 and 25, then celebrate together as a community in January.

The occasion is a solemn ceremony which takes place in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. Armenian clubs like the Hoyetchmen, or the Society of Armenian Young Men, have their scouts play the drums as they lead the march to the church.

“While Armenians around the world celebrate Christmas on January 6, Armenians in the Holy Land are the only group to celebrate the holiday on the 18th and 19th of the month”

At midnight, the congregation gathers in the grotto of the church, where Jesus is said to have been born. Midnight Mass is often attended by Palestinian leaders like the prime minister and president.

After midnight, the blessing of water occurs to symbolize the epiphany (recognition of Jesus as God incarnate). Western Christianity regards the visit of the three kings as the epiphany, while Eastern Christianity recognizes the divinity of Jesus with his baptism. The celebrations end the following morning when the community then returns to Jerusalem.

Discrimination and “spitting” attacks

Unlike the Easter holiday, Christmas celebrations are rarely disrupted by non-Armenians. Sarin Gejekoushian, a member of the executive committee of Hoyetchmen, thinks this could be because Christmas is celebrated in Bethlehem while Easter traditions are held in Jerusalem.

“We face discrimination almost every Easter,” Gejekoushian said. “Extremist Jews disrespect the Armenian priests and scouts who escort them to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They spit on our crosses, physically push the drumming scouts and interrupt their parade. These extremist Jews are aware of their actions and deliberately choose to provoke the Armenians they encounter. »

Attacks against Armenians have intensified recently, said Father Koryoun Baghdasaryan, chancellor of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

In May, Reverend Father Tiran Hakobyan and Reverend Father Arbak Sarukhanyan were badly beaten by young Israeli Jewish men on their way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher from the Armenian convent. Sarukhanyan was hospitalized for his injuries.

Nourhan Manougian, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, walks to the Church of the Nativity in the biblical Palestinian city of Bethlehem on January 18, 2020, during Epiphany celebrations. [Getty]

In November, a Jewish Israeli was filmed spitting on the door of the St. James Armenian Convent.

“And when he saw that the [security] camera was recording his behavior, he repeated it,” Baghdasaryan said. The new Arabic. “The police did not arrest him. Nothing was done to punish him. Nothing.”

When asked to comment, Israel Police said The new Arabic that contrary to public claims, only a handful of attacks have been recorded.

“Regarding the case that occurred in May, suspects have already been arrested during the event and have been handed over for questioning. In the case that occurred in November, various actions are still being taken in order to identify the suspect, arrest him and bring him to justice,” an Israel Police spokesperson said.

Still, Baghdasaryan, who has suffered numerous spitting attacks, remains scared.

“Every time I leave my house to visit an Armenian family in the neighborhood, to go to the grocery store, to go to the Church of the Sepulchre, to go to the pharmacy, to go to the mall, I worried because it can happen at any time,” Baghdasaryan said. “I can be spat on. I can be physically abused.

Another Covid Christmas

Over the past years, hundreds if not thousands of pilgrims from Armenia and the Diaspora have come to Palestine for Christmas. But with the coronavirus pandemic, pilgrims will be away from Christmas this year.

“It’s a unique celebration because it feels like Bethlehem, for one day, becomes Armenian,” Baghdasaryan said. “This year we won’t have pilgrims and we will celebrate it with our locals. But now with the increasing number of daily coronavirus cases, I don’t even know if locals will be allowed to attend all the celebrations.

After meeting with Israeli military officials, it has been decided that participants in Patriarchate events will only need to provide a coronavirus vaccination certificate. Other community events will depend on independent program decisions.

Community organizations often hold parties or dinners in addition to church masses. The Hoyetchmen hold an annual Christmas toy drive during the Armenian New Year (January 13) and distribute gifts to children at their center. But with coronavirus restrictions now in place, Scouts will instead deliver gifts with Santa to every children’s home.

“There will always be a [Palestinian Armenian] community in Jerusalem, but the question is how many”

About 2,000 to 3,000 Armenians live in Jerusalem, with the majority concentrated in the Armenian Quarter. When the State of Israel was established in 1948, however, this number was much higher – around 25,000 Armenians in Palestine. But political and economic instability caused many Armenians to flee the region.

Despite the shrinking population, Baghdasaryan does not believe the Armenian community in Palestine is in danger of being completely wiped out.

“There will be no period when there will not be an Armenian community in the Holy Land because Armenians have the longest Christian presence here – 1,700 years of uninterrupted presence,” Baghdasaryan said. “There will always be a community, but the question is how much.”

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National and Gulf News.

Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum

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