‘A Grand Tradition and An Uncertain Future’ Interview With Fr. Samuel Aghoyan of Jerusalem

The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem – 18/7/19

Translation of the interview with Fr. Samuel- Till Magnus Steiner

A grand tradition and an uncertain future.

A conversation with Father Samuel Aghoyan about the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox  Church in Jerusalem.

“We are grateful to our predecessors for us to be here,” says Father Samuel Aghoyan, who came to Jerusalem from Syria in 1956, to become a Priest of the Armenian Apostolic Church. With these words, the 78-year-old Priest looks back. The Armenians were the oldest Christian nation in the world because of the conversion of the Armenian King Trdat III in the year 301 till nowadays, and the first pilgrimages of Armenian priests to the Holy Land happened only a few years after that (conversion).

Until nowadays this Oriental Orthodox Church is omnipresent in Jerusalem and influences Christian life. Since 2000 Father Samuel is assigned to be one of the superiors, alongside with the Franciscans and Greeks, to represent this patriarchate and to manage the daily religious activities in the Church of the Resurrection- as such is the church called in Orthodoxy. Father Samuel and his staff guard the Status Quo. This has influenced his view on Ecumenism in Jerusalem. “This Holy Place is not managed smartly- because of the lack of mutual understanding. Not the place nor faith is the problem, but the responsible persons. But such is life.” The long nights that he has spent for over 15 years in the Holy Sepulcher taught him that “a Theological unity is impossible. We are still being called heretics, and we also call the others heretics.”

To his proud view on the past and his sobering perspective on the present Ecumenism in Jerusalem also belongs a worrying view in the future: “the young faithful leave the country, to find a better life somewhere else. The average age of the Armenians here is 35 years old. And moreover, there are interdenominational marriages”, and when he says this he smiles and adds “we cannot prevent these marriages- the bride and groom must love each other also”. He estimates that nowadays only about a thousand Armenians live in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem. “I remember that more than half of the Christian business owners were Armenians, today about ten.”

Father Samuel is also a pragmatic person, and he is not desperate. Because he thought there were already enough clergymen in Jerusalem who explain the Bible, he decided in the nineties to study bookkeeping and business administration and went to the US. There he led a congregation of more than 5,000 members and experienced how his Church bloomed also outside Armenia. At the moment he is the Head of the Financial Department of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem. His Church does not need to financially worry about everyday life, because a steady income is generated from the property of lands and buildings- and for larger costs like for instance renovations, donations can be asked from large Armenian communities in the USA and Russia. But he also knows that financial security does not keep a church alive. “ As a small community, our fate could be manipulated by those who govern us.” However, he sees the possibility of a renewed blossoming of the Armenian community: “It is very difficult to bring Armenian families to Israel. They do not easily receive working permits.”
When addressed on the relation with Judaism in Israel, he tells that some years ago the municipality asked us to remove a cross that was attached on the outside wall of the Armenian quarter, so that it would not bother Jewish people to pass through. There is a certain ill-feeling towards Christians by some ultra-orthodox Jews.

It is ironic and a pity that Israel has not recognized the Armenian Genocide. Should any genocide be politicized?
Members of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the Holy Land do not see themselves as Arabs, but their identity is attached with their Church, which created space for the Armenian nation, that was often denied. After Israel took over East Jerusalem and the Old City, he received an Israeli ID, that was revoked because of his long stay in the USA for his studies. His present home is the Armenian Quarter of the Old City, the walls of which were built already centuries ago, which functions since as a “small, independent state” for its members. Also within the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem has a certain autonomous position, yet it is closely related to the Catholicosate in Etchmiadzin. “The Catholicos has the power of decision about faith and its principles, but he does not hold any administrative power over us” explains Father Samuel. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem appoints bishops and elects the Patriarch from its own brotherhood members, who have to be confirmed by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

The Armenian believers in the Holy Land are being caught in the middle. Aware of their tradition they enter an uncertain future. In their history, they have adapted to always changing rulers and governments but still kept their own identity. Father Samuel sees the date of Easter as an example of this. The Armenian Apostolic Church as a whole follows the Gregorian calendar- but not the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem.  In order to celebrate the Feast of Easter in the Resurrection Church together with the other Orthodox Churches, it furthermore follows the Julian Calendar. Father Samuel is still pessimistic about Ecumenism, but he also says “it is a pity that the Catholics in Jerusalem separated themselves and that they do not celebrate it together with us”.