Armenians in the Holy Land welcome vital reinforcements in troubled times

The Gaza War has made an already difficult life harder for one of Jerusalem's main Christian denominations, but some help is on the way

Life goes on in Jerusalem's religious institutions, despite the war in Gaza. Thomas Helm / The National
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Only a small inner door in the grand entrance to the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem was open on Friday.

The larger cast-iron gateway that normally welcomes tourists and pilgrims towards the Cathedral of St James remained shut since October 7, when the Holy Land was thrown into turmoil after Hamas launched an unprecedented attack in Israel’s south.

Authorities and the military went into high alert, Palestinians and Israelis restricted their movement and foreign tourists were told by their governments to avoid the region.

Some visitors have stayed, such as Margaret Chevian, a former librarian from Rhode Island, who came to the Armenian Patriarchate for three months to help it organise its sprawling collection of books.

“Should I stay or should I go?” Ms Chevian asks.

"My family and friends back in the US are saying 'come home', because it’s not safe here.

“My friends here in the Old City of Jerusalem are telling me to stay, 'Jerusalem is the safest place to be'.

“So far, I've opted to stay and I do feel safe.”

One group staying steadfast is the clergy. It cannot abandon one of the most important religious institutions for Armenians. The community has had a presence in Jerusalem since the seventh century AD.

“Jerusalem is one of the main centres of the Armenian church,” says George Hintlian, a historian and long-time pillar of the Armenian community in the Holy Land.

The Patriarch is in charge of Armenian communities in the Middle East.

“In places like Lebanon, Syria and Jerusalem, you have to spend most of your time dealing with local politics – adjusting to changing situations,” he says.

The Armenians know they must do the same in the weeks, possibly months of conflict ahead.

On Tuesday, in a small, early-morning ceremony in which Irish coffee was distributed generously, they welcomed two new bishops, vital reinforcements for the struggling community.

They will help bolster the spiritual vitality of the institution. But they also need to boost numbers in a more secular sense.

The remit of one of the new bishops includes managing the community's vast property portfolio, both inside the Old City and out.

It has been targeted by illegal Israeli settlers in recent years. The Armenians are currently battling the most dangerous and complex threat yet. Settlers are trying to obtain the community’s only car park and surrounding land. Corruption among some of the clergy paved the way for the attempt.

Armenians say without the car park, their community will die. Residents will lose their mobility and pupils at the school will have nowhere to be dropped off. All for a paltry hotel lease deal that would leave the already wealthy community with very meagre financial gains, if any.

War in the Holy Land only makes their struggle harder.

Fortunately, Mr Hintlian thinks highly of the bishop with this important job.

“The Israeli context, to put it conservatively, is very dynamic – you have to take new policies into your daily life,” he says.

But with reinforcements and a community that is committed to its survival, Mr Hintlian still manages to be optimistic.

“There has never been a period in our presence when we did not have to manage crises,” he says.

“Vigilance is now part of our spiritual duties.”

Updated: October 20, 2023, 6:00 PM