By Edmond Y. Azadian
An eerie silence reigns over the Armenian news media, both in Armenia and in the diaspora, on one of the most crucial issues facing the entire Armenian world. Indeed, the election of a patriarch in Jerusalem is around the corner when the Brotherhood of St. James convenes on January 23.
We cannot lull ourselves into believing that this is an issue which concerns only the Brotherhood, or for that matter only Armenians.
What happens at the Armenian Patriarchate on that date has far broader ramifications than many of us believe. The interested outside parties have their own plans. Rival churches have their own. Indeed, the only people indifferent to these developments appear to be the Armenians who hold the key to the situation. All that needs to be done is to use that key wisely to preserve the treasures and the legal rights which our ancestors have attained through blood and sweat over the centuries.
The Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem traces its roots all the way to the sixth century, when a congregation and monastery were
established. Without enjoying the support and the protection of a powerful Armenian state, the Armenian Patriarchate has won and
maintained equal rights along with the Greeks and Catholics and it controls one sixth of the Old City.
In addition to legal and ceremonial privileges, the Patriarchate has vast real estate holdings to the envy of other denominations
and ruling authorities of Jerusalem. After the Matenadaran in Yerevan, the Patriarchate boasts the largest collection of Armenian
ancient manuscripts which have been jealously guarded and catalogued by the monks, the last one being Bishop Norayr Bogharian
of blessed memory.
Although Greeks have suffered the same bitter fate at the hands of the Turks as have the Armenians, Jerusalem has been a place where historically there has not been any empathy from the Greek Patriarchate toward the Armenians. On the contrary, they have taken every opportunity to trample Armenian rights, the last one being recorded in the Church of the Nativity. There are probably more problems in store in this relationship, in view of the rapprochement between Israel and Cyprus in exploring the continental shelf of the island for oil and gas, despite threats issued by Ankara.
The rights of different faiths are guaranteed and governed by the clauses of the Status Quo, decreed by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Majid in the 1880s. The Status Quo protects the rights of each denomination against encroachment by the other churches. For the convenience of the authorities ruling the holy places, that covenant also discourages any interference by outside powers. However, historically the Vatican has been successful in influencing the conduct of the local authorities as well as the Russians and the Greeks. Only the Armenians have failed to exert any influence, seldom having a sovereign or powerful government. Additionally, the Brotherhood has been loath to encourage any outside influence nor has it sought advice from any hierarchical authority. And the weaker the Brotherhood has become, the more it has overplayed its authority, sometimes to the detriment of the Patriarchate’s interests.
We all remember the degree of importance the Armenian Quarter attained when it became a political hot potato at the Camp David negotiations. Since the future of Jerusalem has not been determined yet, the destiny of the Patriarchate still hangs in the balance.
As the Brotherhood convenes for the election, all the challenges facing the Patriarchate must be the prime concern rather than the
personalities — and likes and dislikes — of the potential candidates. A responsibility of historic magnitude rests on the shoulders of
each member of the Brotherhood.
We may briefly outline those challenges, and the Brotherhood in its wisdom may decide on the commensurate qualities of the candidates and cast their votes, realizing fully the far-reaching consequences of that vote.
The Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem will remain a bone of contention between the Israelis and the Palestinians for the foreseeable future. And when the historic opportunity arises for a final settlement, that person at the helm will determine the future course
of history for the Armenian Patriarchate. The Brotherhood has to foresee who the best individual will be for that watershed moment.
Until 1967, and following the take over of Jerusalem by Israel, two clergymen demonstrated their diplomatic skills in maneuvering between the feuding forces to preserve the interests of the Patriarchate. Those leaders were the much maligned late Patriarch Yeghishe Derderian and the Chancellor, Archbishop Shahe Ajemian.
Our skirmishes with the Greeks and Ethiopians will continue, perhaps even intensifying. Determination, patience and diplomacy have to play their role, alternately, as the case may warrant, so that no legal or ceremonial rights are compromised.
Nowhere in the world does the Armenian Church possess more holdings than in Jerusalem. And those properties have whetted the
appetites of many parties.
Historically real estate has been poorly managed in Jerusalem, costing tremendous losses. Any property leased for 99 years, as the precedents have demonstrated, must be considered lost. Because, in time, real estate changes its value and the legal manipulations by hostile parties may take their toll. The patriarch himself cannot be a real estate expert, but must have the prudence of delegating the responsibility to the clergy or lay parties, skilled in the trade.
Property management in the hands of clergy has historically proven to be a losing proposition. Not only have Armenians lost valuable property in Jerusalem, but also in Venice, where the Mkhitarist fathers lost $50 million worth of property, claiming that it was only the monastery’s business and no one else’s. The properties in Jerusalem and elsewhere have been donated by benefactors or been acquired through the contributions of ordinary church members and, the clergy, in principle, plays the role of custodian rather than owner.
For many centuries the Jerusalem Patriarchate has served as the center of academic activities, producing a valuable body of scholarly works. Recent years have seen a sharp decline in scholarship, somehow indicating that the historic mission has been abandoned.
The collection of rich manuscripts and historic documents, coupled with an invigorated leadership may warrant the resumption of that historic role. Especially throughout the 20th century, when Echmiadzin was under Soviet rule, Jerusalem assumed the role of educating young members of the clergy who eventually all took leadership positions throughout the diasporan churches and they continue serving eminently. As Echmiadzin is in the process of catching up in its role of clergy training, a heavy responsibility still rests on the shoulders of the Jerusalem Patriarchate in that area.
The Patriarchate at one time had been physically and spiritually catering to a thriving community in Jerusalem. The dwindling population of that community has added responsibilities to the Patriarchate’s leadership.
As the election date approaches, we have yet to witness a consensus among membership of the Brotherhood around a leading candidate.
There are precedents when the Brotherhood elected patriarchs outside its ranks, but we believe deserving members may emerge from within — a candidate trained in Jerusalem and who has served around the world, with broad experience in the Armenian Church structure as well as in the ecumenical realm; a clergyman fluent in several languages and with experience with many dioceses.
Certainly age discrimination cannot be a consideration, but age eventually may become a factor in an atrophied leadership as it happened with the late patriarch.
Also, whether we like it or not, a silent tug-of-war continues behind the scenes, between the forces that have divided the Armenian Church and the forces that uphold the supremacy of the Holy See and Echmiadzin. Any candidate with a record of standing for the unity of the Armenian Church will not only contribute to Jerusalem, but also to the healing process of disunity through the entire structure of the church.
As we can see, the challenges are great and overwhelming. When a new patriarch is elected, he will need the cooperation and the talents of the entire Brotherhood.
We do hope the members of the Brotherhood will be able to envision the historic perspective over their personal priorities and rise to the occasion. The challenges are overwhelming, the choices are painful but the impact of individual visions is critical.
This is no time for personal ambitions — the moment of truth is approaching in Jerusalem.