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Armenians have been living in the Holy City since the 16th century, when they fled here from the threat of genocide. But in recent months, the roughly 1,700-member community, which forms an integral part of Jerusalem’s ethnic mix, has come under ever-increasing pressure.
Radical Jewish settlers feel almost impunity after the current government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which also includes extremist parties, and would like to control all of Jerusalem. After the government had to apologize some time ago for settlers spitting on Christian pilgrims abroad, local Armenians became their target.
In the middle of November, an armed group of settlers with fighting dogs broke into the Armenian quarter at night and started tearing cobblestones from the sidewalk. The bulldozers came along with them. However, members of the Armenian community formed a live chain on the spot and prevented the settlers from destroying it. For now.
“It’s not just a piece of land that we’re protecting, the future of Armenians and all Christians in Jerusalem is at stake,” The Times quoted 22-year-old activist Hagop Djernazian, who attended the event, as saying.
The presence of the police prevented violence on the spot, but according to the statements of the Armenians, they sided with the settlers. The policemen detained several Armenians and demanded from them documents that they were the owners of the houses in the places where the fight is now going on.
More on West Bank tensions
The Jewish state is now defending itself against the terrorism of the Palestinian movement Hamas, but at the same time it has to deal with domestic terrorism. Radical settlers in the West Bank attacked one of the Palestinian villages. Thanks to their supporter in the government, they feel impunity.
The disputed territory lies between the Jaffa Gate and the Jewish Quarter, where a number of attacks against Christians have already occurred in recent months. The Armenian community has now set up a patrol there in case the armed settlers return.
However, the truth is that the Armenians themselves, or more precisely, their religious leaders, have their share in the current tense situation.
The Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem leased 25 percent of the land in the Armenian Quarter (the smallest part of the Old City) for 99 years to the Israeli developer Xana Capital, which is supported by the settlers. The company wants to build a luxury hotel on the land that is currently used as a parking lot. Along with the parking lot, however, the patriarch also leased to the company a number of houses in which local Armenians live.
The property is the property of all Armenians
One of them is 81-year-old Garo Nalbandian, a former photographer whose family has been living in a house rented from the church for over 50 years.
“I have nightmares every night. Where I will live with my family, with my children. There are about 11 of us,” he told CNN. His family’s house stands directly opposite the Armenian monastery and in the shadow of the walls of the Old Town. A steady stream of tourists and priests pass through its doors every day.
Nalbandian went to the patriarch’s office to inquire about the lease of the house. There they told him that the house was part of the deal with the developer and that the Patriarchate was trying to take it out. The photographer complains that the contracts are secret. He has at his disposal photos taken at the signing of the contract – they feature the former priest of the Patriarchate, Baret Jeretsian, who left the Holy Land some time ago and lives in the United States.
Israel and Palestine: Who rules what territory
The conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on for generations. In 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, and two years later, the radical Hamas movement took power there. The Palestinians strive for the establishment of their own independent state in the West Bank, but the territory continues to be occupied by Israel and the current government supports the construction of additional Jewish settlements there.
The orange area to the north is the Golan Heights, internationally recognized as part of Syria but occupied by Israel since 1967.
“It doesn’t matter who bought it, I don’t blame whoever bought it. I blame whoever was selling it. This property is the property of all Armenians, all Armenians in the world,” he thinks.
The Armenian Patriarch in Jerusalem avoids journalists – his office did not even respond to Seznam Zpráv’s questions. His representative, Archbishop Sevan Gharibian, told CNN that the patriarchate is working to cancel the contract.
Meanwhile, the Patriarchate appealed to all Jerusalem’s Christian communities for help – on the grounds that the Armenian presence in Jerusalem was under “the greatest existential threat since the 16th century”. All Christian churches in the Holy City then issued a joint statement expressing concern for the future of the Armenian community in the city.
“The provocations used by the alleged developers … threaten to erase the Armenian presence in the area, weakening and threatening the Christian presence in the Holy Land,” wrote Christian officials, including the heads of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.