Remembering and commemorating

Following accusations of police brutality and official discrimination, the Armenian community is alienated and angry.

armenian 88 (photo credit: )
armenian 88
(photo credit: )
On the day after Orthodox Easter, after the clamor of the Christian tourists wandering through the Old City market, the compound of the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchy was somber. Only a few families and teens lingered after the first of several protests and ceremonies to mark Armenian Genocide Memorial Day. Clad in T-shirts printed with "Recognize. Condemn. Prevent. Turkey is Guilty of Genocide" to remember the 91-year anniversary of the three-year slaughter and exile of Armenians in the World War I Ottoman Empire, the local Orthodox Christian community was feeling especially demoralized. Members of the community say that they feel lonely every year at this time. Although more than 20 countries have acknowledged the facts of the Armenian genocide, many countries with political and economic ties with Turkey - including Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, Ukraine and Georgia - remain silent. But this year, a series of violent rows with Israeli police has left the community feeling more isolated than ever. During the pre-Orthodox Easter celebrations, according to representatives of the Armenian community, hundreds of pilgrims were denied entry into the Holy Fire Day rights at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Four Armenians were arrested, including two teens. Is this a new pattern of discrimination, they ask bitterly. A week ago, the mood in the Old City was exuberant. Thousands of Orthodox Christians from Israel and around the world had gathered to make contact with the first candle light, or "holy light" ignited in the inner tomb of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the burial and resurrection of Jesus is believed to have taken place. Making his way to church, with a group of Christian Armenian pilgrims and teens, Serop Sahagian, leader of a local youth group, was stopped at a roadblock a few hundred meters from the church. "I asked nicely and gently. We were standing in the hot sun. We had permits. It was our holy day... So I [eventually] pushed the gate," Sahagian told In Jerusalem. "I didn't raise my fists, touch or threaten anyone. But they called the Border Police and they jumped on me. They threw me face down on the ground and handcuffed me behind my back. The brutality was unbelievable. My son jumped in to help me and they did exactly the same to him." Police officials confirmed to IJ that Sahagian, his 15-year-old son Apo and another local Armenian were taken that morning to the local Kishle police station and held for questioning for about four hours. They say that they arrested the Armenians because of drunk and disorderly conduct. Sahagian pulls out one such news article derisively. "I have never touched a drink in my life," he says. And Armenian Archbishop Nurhan Manougian is outraged at the accusation. "Maybe some from Russia were drinking, but not the Armenians from Jerusalem and the US… Nobody was drunk; they are making up this story to justify their actions," he says. Manougian says that there was no reason to deny them entrance into the church, which can easily hold at least 1,000 people in the Armenian section upstairs, and there were only 700 pilgrims. "The police know this [but] around 400 Armenians didn't get in. They came from Canada, the US, Australia, Armenia and from Jaffa and Haifa. They were treated rudely and pushed [by police, who] didn't even let a couple of priests in. They beat them and threw them to the ground. "I even saw them throw an elderly lady to the ground." Israeli security is high at the Holy Fire events every year, due to concerns about fires or stampedes and while once the church, which dates back to 335, had 12 exits, 11 have been sealed since the days of Salah-a-din. Violent fights between vying Christian sects are not unusual. But this year, according to Jerusalem Police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby, only the Armenians were violent as they tried to push the Russian Christians and police back. Ben-Ruby added that every person had a permit and every ceremonial parade was eventually able to pass through the church, although some were temporarily held back to control the flow of traffic. In a separate incident, a second Armenian youth was also arrested during the Holy Fire celebrations. "I was marching with my youth group near the church, when a religious Jewish couple walked towards us, right into our procession," says Levon Deldelian, 17. "We told them to go to the side. But when they didn't, we tried pushing them to the side. The man in the couple hit my brother in the face and spat on him. I reacted. Suddenly, five or seven policemen jumped on me and picked me up by my neck." According to Deldelian, the police handcuffed, arrested and questioned him for two hours, while the rest of the scouts from his group protested outside, banging drums and demanding his release. "Two officers treated me really well," he says, but the others abused him verbally and beat him. "They were [cursing] the Armenians. One hit me three or four times under the chin, so it wouldn't make my nose bleed." He also claims that an officer ripped the sash from his Scout uniform and stamped on the Armenian flag scarf he had been wearing around his neck. He says that one of the officers yelled at him, "Why did you hit a Jew?" before hitting him. "I answered that he was pushing, it was not a Jewish issue, and I would have done the same even if he was Armenian, Jewish, Christian or Muslim." "I [will remember your face] and I'll see you again," Deldelian remembers the officer saying. The Jerusalem police say they saw Deldelian strike the Jewish man with his drum stick and that the Orthodox Jew was released after filing a complaint. Deldelian, they note, did not file a complaint. In response to Deldelian's accusations, Ben-Ruby would only say that if the allegations are serious, Deldelian should report them "to the proper authority." Armenian officials say they intend to do so and are organizing to file a complaint about police discrimination and brutality. They also intend to contact the Interior Ministry, the Mayor's Office, the Prime Minister's Office, and the authorities responsible for religious affairs. Yet it remains clear to all that this incident is part of an ongoing feeling of deprivation and oppression that the community of Armenian Christians feels here in Jerusalem. Dr. Sergio La Porta, a lecturer in Armenian studies at the Hebrew University, notes that despite their 1,500-year history in Jerusalem, Armenians still don't enjoy full civil rights in Israel. "Some don't have Israeli citizenship, and [obtaining citizenship] is a long process and by no means certain even if they were born in Jerusalem. For visa issues or marriage they have to deal with the Interior Ministry in east, not west, Jerusalem. So in some ways there is no distinction between them and everyone else in the Old City and they feel that isn't true. Sometimes they feel squeezed by Jews and Muslims, and feel that the State of Israel doesn't recognize them as peaceful members of the country. There is also resentment over lost territory and attempts to take property." La Porta adds, "I think that if Israel gave the Armenian genocide the recognition it deserves, that would go a long way toward healing." In recent years, attacks on Armenian priests and archbishops in the Old City by local Jewish children, teens, and adults have exacerbated the feelings of anger and alienation. And they also worry that the police are more accommodating to the Greek Orthodox, who own many Israeli official properties. The Greek Orthodox, they contend, want to undermine the 1852 Status Quo Agreement, which defines the division of property and rights in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, including during the Holy Fire activities. "Our community has always been exemplary in terms of abiding by the laws of Israel and contributing to the art and culture of the state," says Neshan Balian, a member of the family of Jerusalem-Armenian potters whose works dot the Jerusalem landscape. Last year, the Balian family donated a ceramic mural to the Jerusalem Municipality, to commemorate the Armenian genocide. The city accepted the gift, but would not acknowledge its meaning. "It is very humiliating and frustrating for us to be treated as second-class citizens. It is a pity that a minority such as ours which has so dwindled in number is not appreciated by the state. Instead of being protected by the state for our rich heritage and positive contributions, we are treated as criminals and our rights abused. This is very hard to accept when coming from a people which has had a very similar history to ours."