CNN last Saturday published an article (In Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter, a controversial land deal pits a community against its religious leaders) claiming that the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem is facing an “existential crisis” – the Armenian community is shrinking since its members are “pitted between Jewish extremists and the ongoing and worsening Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The author, CNN Business reporter Hadas Gold, claims that the future of the Armenian community in the Old City of Jerusalem is in jeopardy after the Armenian Patriarch Archbishop Nourhan Manougian decided to lease for 99 years land that belongs to his church to a Jewish individual who plans to build a hotel there.
Incidentally, this is not the first time Armenians have claimed they face an existential crisis in response to attempts by foreigners to settle on land that was once under their control. Just recently, Armenia’s permanent representative to the United Nations Mher Margaryan referred to Azerbaijan’s presence in the Karabakh region which it liberated in 2020 as an “existential threat.”
Gold wrote: “Among the Jerusalem Old City’s four quarters, the Armenian is the smallest. But now Armenians say they’re facing an existential crisis that could be the beginning of the end of the Armenian presence in the Old City.”
The Armenian quarter is the smallest of the Old City quarters, next to the Muslim quarter, the Jewish quarter, and the Christian quarter. Its name has been accepted only since the 19th century, although the Armenians had been involved in local politics under the Arab caliphates and the Ottomans. Most of the quarter is surrounded by a wall and is a closed private area of the Armenian monastery. As of 2017, the number of its residents is 3,403.
The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem is located in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem, and the Armenian Apostolic Church is officially recognized by Israel as the religious entity that handles the affairs of its congregation, such as marriage and divorce. The Patriarchate enjoys a semi-diplomatic status and is one of the three major guardians of the Christian holy places in Israel, with joint control of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City, the Chapel of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, the Tomb of the Virgin Mary next to Gethsemane, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
I stopped an Armenian lady who lives in the Quarter and was walking her dog under the hot noon sun. She asked to remain anonymous, and told me that the protests take place every Friday and the local Armenians are protesting to “get answers, because they are leasing out the local parking lot to build a hotel, which will force local Armenians to bypass the area with their groceries all the way from the Mamilla Mall.”
She said that the Armenian Quarter had another parking lot, but that one had also been leased for 99 years to a Jewish person, so the Armenians are protesting “because they will be left without nearby parking.”
She also told me about rumors that some local homes were also being leased out, and the Armenian community “has still not gotten clear answers regarding what was leased and what was not. They don’t know if shops are being leased, they don’t know about anything.”
In her view, the goal of the Armenian protests was to “find answers.” They demand transparency, they complain about the inconvenience of having to walk around the hotel in the future, rather than cutting through the parking lot. But all of it is a far cry from an “existential crisis.”
Gold reported that a group of volunteer Armenian lawyers from Armenia and the United States conducted a seven-day fact-finding mission to help understand the situation and suggest remedies. According to these lawyers, it’s not just some homes that are at risk: the Armenian heritage museum and the Armenian cemetery are also “possibly threatened.”
Arman Tatoyan, a former Deputy Minister of Justice for the Republic of Armenia and human rights lawyer, told CNN that the group had already decided that “there will be violations if the contract is implemented and executed. And our purpose is to prevent the execution.”
I visited the Armenian Quarter on Thursday and interviewed several local residents to determine whether the CNN piece engaged in anti-Israel propaganda or reflected the reality on the ground. As one PA Arab source told me, “These protests are only meant to create a political scene.”
According to him, “the Knesset stands on land that was leased to the Jewish people by the Greek Orthodox church for 99 years. There are many other areas owned by the Greek Orthodox Church and other land owners, such as the Jordanian Waqf. They all leased the land out for 99 years. Whenever these issues come up, there are protests.”
My source attributed the protests over the lease by the Armenian church to internal rivalries in the Armenian congregations, as well as the Armenians in Jordan, Syria, and, of course, Armenia.
An elderly Armenian man who lives in the Old City and also spoke on the condition of anonymity, told me that about 500 Armenians are living in the Old City, out of whom about 100 are protesting every Friday.
He said couldn’t say anything else because he works for the Armenian community. An Armenian high school boy who was riding his bicycle stopped to tell me the local Armenian community was bringing in many lawyers from outside.
“Five lawyers are attending these protests. The archbishop doesn’t show us what has been sold and what has not been sold. We know the parking lot was sold, but don’t know about the other areas. They are trying to bring back as much as possible from what was sold,” he said. According to him, the Armenian Patriarch decided to sell the land, and other Armenians did not have a say in the matter.
A local Armenian businessman in the Old City speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me: “Nobody knows why the Armenian Patriarch decided to lease the land. It will indeed go back to the Armenians in 99 years, but who will be alive then? My children will also be dead then. The people are protesting because this land is not to be sold or leased. It is part of us. Just as one cannot sell part of their body, they cannot sell or lease part of the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem.”
The same businessman also noted that many shops in the Armenian Quarter faced many financial difficulties during the COVID epidemic, which may have been the reason for the Armenian Patriarch’s decision to lease out the parking lot, and possibly as much as 25% of the Armenian Quarter to a Jewish businessman, as CNN noted––to address his church’s financial difficulties.