Jerusalem’s Armenian community emphasizes Christian presence, identity in Israel

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Christmas tree in the Armenian quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem

For the first time in its centuries-old history, the Armenian community of Jerusalem erected a Christmas tree for the holiday season this year, in a symbolic gesture of strengthening the Armenian and Christian presence in the city.

“The Armenians are an integral part of the mosaic that makes up Jerusalem,” Harout Baghamian said at a ceremony last week to light the tree.

In a rare act, the normally private community opened the event to the public on Nov. 28.

“May these Christmas lights bring light, hope and love into your homes and throughout the community,” Baghamian said before the countdown — in Armenian — to light the tree.

The event cast a rare spotlight on the community itself and also focused on the tiny but strong Christian presence in Israel. The Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City is home to about 1,000 Armenian Christians, a population that has decreased from about 25,000 at its peak in 1948. Some reports estimate that 10,000 Armenians live throughout Israel today.

Nourhan Manougian, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, thanked the organizers who initiated and pulled off the spectacular event, which included fireworks over the Old City.

“It is wonderful to see that this one Christmas tree can bring so many people together,” he said during the ceremony.

Local Armenians were joined by Jewish and Muslim neighbors who attended the tree lighting and holiday bazaar set up in the convent’s square.

While Christians elsewhere in the Middle East are experiencing persecution and many are fleeing their homelands, the Christian community in Israel enjoys freedom of religion and remains safe.

Most of the indigenous Christian population in Israel is Arab along with Armenians, Assyrians, Ethiopians and Copts. Christians account for about 2 percent of Israel’s population yet the months of December and January in Israel are marked by several Christmas festivals around Jerusalem and all the way to Nazareth and other Christian villages in the north. Thousands of Jewish Israelis attend these events as well, mingling with the local Christian population.

The country of Armenia, nestled in the Caucuses between Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, was the first nation to declare Christianity its national religion in 301 AD. Since then, Armenians have been making pilgrimages to the Holy Land, thereby creating a presence in Jerusalem which eventually blossomed into the Armenian Quarter.

As for this first Armenian Christmas tree, it is going to have to last almost two months. While Catholics mark Christmas on Dec. 25 and other Orthodox Christian denominations observe the holiday on Jan. 7, the Armenians in Jerusalem are the only Orthodox Christians in the world to celebrate on Jan. 19. The disparate holidays stem from which calendar the specific church uses. The Armenian church in Jerusalem maintained the Julian calendar, accounting for the difference in days.

This makes Jerusalem the only city in the world to host three Christmases.