In the face of erasure, Jerusalem's Armenian community celebrates a sombre Christmas

Jerusalem's Armenian community faces an uncertain future
5 min read
17 January, 2022
In-depth: In the heart of Jerusalem's Old City, Armenians are preparing to celebrate Christmas. But this year, faced with a spike in attacks against the community and rising coronavirus cases, the streets of the Armenian Quarter are quiet.

Shop after shop and restaurant after restaurant are nearly all closed when walking down the narrow, cobblestone streets of Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter. With the latest coronavirus wave sweeping through the country, Christmas for the Palestinian-Armenian community is becoming less of a communal celebration.  

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

The calendar differences make for a long Christmas season in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Armenian Jerusalemites typically gather with their families on the 24th and 25th of December and then celebrate together as a community in January. 

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

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

At midnight, the congregation assembles in the church’s grotto, where Jesus is said to have been born. The midnight mass is often attended by Palestinian leaders like the prime minister and president. 

After midnight, the blessing of the water occurs to symbolise the epiphany (recognition of Jesus as God incarnated). Western Christianity considers the visit of the three kings as the epiphany, while Eastern Christianity recognises Jesus’ divinity 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 Hoyetchmen’s executive committee, believes this could be because Christmas is celebrated in Bethlehem while Easter traditions are done in Jerusalem. 

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

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

In May, Reverend Father Tiran Hakobyan and Reverend Father Arbak Sarukhanyan were violently beaten by young Jewish Israeli men when walking to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from the Armenian Convent. Sarukhanyan was hospitalised for his injuries. 

Jerusalem's Armenian community faces an uncertain future
Nourhan Manougian, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, makes his way to the Church of the Nativity in the biblical Palestinian town of Bethlehem on January 18, 2020, during the Epiphany celebrations. [Getty]

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

“And when he saw that the [security] camera was recording his behaviour, he repeated it,” Baghdasaryan told The New Arab. “The police haven’t arrested him. Nothing has been done to punish him. Nothing.” 

When asked for comment, the Israel Police told The New Arab that contrary to public claims, only a handful of attacks have been recorded.  

“Regarding the case that occurred in May, suspects were already arrested during the event and have been handed in for questioning. In the case that occurred in November, a variety of actions are still performed in order to identify the suspect, arrest him and bring him to justice,” an Israeli police spokesperson said.  

Yet Baghdasaryan, who has experienced numerous spitting attacks, remains afraid.   

“Every time I go out of my house to visit an Armenian family in the quarter, to go to a grocery, to go to the Sepulchre Church, to go to a pharmacy, to go to the mall, I am concerned because it can happen at any moment,” Baghdasaryan said. “I can be spat on. I can be subject to physical violence.” 

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Another Covid Christmas 

In years past, hundreds and even thousands of pilgrims from Armenia and the diaspora came to Palestine for Christmas. But with the coronavirus pandemic, pilgrims will be absent from Christmas this year. 

“This is a unique celebration because it’s as if Bethlehem, for one day, becomes Armenian,” Baghdasaryan said. “This year we will have no pilgrims and we will celebrate it with our locals. But now with the rising numbers of daily coronavirus cases, I don't even know if the locals will be permitted to attend all the celebrations.”

After meeting with Israeli military officials, it was decided that participants of the Patriarchate events will only need to provide a coronavirus vaccination certificate. Other community events will depend on the independent program’s decisions. 

Community organisations will often host parties or dinners in addition to the churches’ masses. The Hoyetchmen run an annual Christmas toy drive on the Armenian New Year (13 Jan.) and distribute presents to children at their centre. But with the coronavirus restrictions now in place, scouts will instead deliver presents with Santa Clause to each children’s house. 

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

Around 2,000-3,000 Armenians live in Jerusalem, with the majority concentrated in the Armenian Quarter. When the state of Israel was established in 1948, that number was much higher, however — roughly 25,000 Armenians in Palestine. But political and economic instability has caused many Armenians to flee the region.  

Despite the shrinking population, Baghdasaryan doesn’t feel Palestine’s Armenian community is in danger of being erased completely.  

“There won’t be any period where 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 many.” 

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