On May 10, the Holy Synod of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem convened and unanimously declared Fr. Baret Yeretzian defrocked. The former real estate director of the Patriarchate was accused for his alleged role in leasing Goverou Bardez (The Garden of Cows) for a duration of 99 years to Jewish Australian businessman Danny Rubinstein. A few weeks later, he was decreed to vacate his residence within the Armenian Convent.
Upon hearing this news, a large swath of the Armenian community of Jerusalem gathered outside his home, demanding answers while shouting “Tavajan! Tavajan!” Being a cynic, I didn’t think this would amount to anything of value, but upon arriving on the scene, I was happily proven wrong. There were no Tashnags, Ramgavars, Homenetmenagans, Hoyetchmenagans, children, men or women — only the people, united in their clamor, for a change, with a protest that lasted for hours until nightfall, emboldened by patriotic chants.
At this point, the Israeli police and their enforcing division, the magavniks as we call them, entered the Armenian Convent, allegedly at the behest of the disgraced priest, in order to escort him out safely to his taxi. The crowd had increased in size, and as he exited his residence, mayhem ensued — shrieks of outrage, spitting, slapping, punching and a tussle with the Israeli forces in an attempt to grab hold of the former priest, now merely Khatchig Yeretzian. I don’t condone this kind behavior, especially toward a man who had been stripped of his power, excommunicated, and at his weakest point. It was easy, far too easy. But, the people needed answers. The people deserved answers, and the Patriarchate for the past three years had not been transparent about this issue. Yeretzian seemed like a sacrificial lamb at the mercy of a justified frenzy.
There was a need for accountability, and this wasn’t enough. After all, only the Patriarch’s signature alone holds any legal value as far as the state of Israel is concerned. If His Beatitude Archbishop Nourhan Manougian was deceived, it only highlighted his incompetence; if he had knowingly signed the lease, he was guilty of betraying the Armenian people. Only allegations for now, but irrespective of both possibilities, our backbone in the Holy Land had been shattered. A few members from our community, galvanized by the fervor of the crowd, organized a protest the following week which was to take place in the Medz Pag [the main courtyard]. And again, the cynic in me, cultivated by decades of communal complacency, said no, meguh chi kar (no one will come). And again, proudly so, I was humbled. Community leaders across the political divide gave speeches which stressed the importance of this patch of land that had been bought, bit by bit, by hokevoragans and ashkharagans since the 14th century, eventually developing into a source of sustenance and sanctuary by the St. James Brotherhood: livestock and dairy produce in abundance, a pond for the laundering of clothes, and if need be, given our historical predicament to displacement, a place for refugees from every corner of our fractured diaspora. The invigorated youth then proceeded to engage in folkloric dance, most notably the Yarkhushta, a battle dance dating back to the Middle Ages, referenced in the works of Movses Khorenatsi.
The partially satiated ensemble, led by activists Hagop Djernazian and Setrag Balian, then marched toward the entrance of the Armenian Patriarchate, adjacent to St. James Church. With respect to its sanctity and holiness, the megaphone was eventually put aside following the plight of the people. In unison, the event culminated with a prayer — Der Voghormia — imbued, as it always has been, in pain and in memory of those who had sacrificed their lives fighting for our lands.
This effort, this naturally knit grassroots activism was not to be equated with the new age astro-turfed mutation that exists only in the hollowness of so-called online or international communities (the 120,000 Armenians for over 160 days in Artsakh can attest to that futility). No. This was born out of pure commonality. The Saghimahays knew one another, not virtually. We knew our walls. We knew our home. Blindfold any one of us, place us at the entrance of the convent, in front of the coarsely asphalted gate — our Vunkin Toor — and watch as our fingertips trace the rugged walls of the hallway leading to the Medz Pag, as the cobblestones beneath our feet move us toward the pricking, yet holy walls of St. James Church, before turning us toward the stairs leading to the Bezdig Pag, all the way up the labyrinth-like alleys which divide the pathways to the different households of the different families that have been for more than a century raising the next generation of Armenians within the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem: the Kahkedjians, Kahvedjians, Manougians, Kasparians, Panossians, Toumayans, Hindoyans, Djernazians, Alemians, Nassarians, Kalaydjians, Kopoushians, Kassabians, Deldelians, Krikorians, Bedrossians, Nakashians, Hagopians, Gejekoushians, Dikatanians, Yezegelians, Karagozians, Baghamians, Antreassians, Nalbandians, Lepedjians, Koutoujians, Melidossians, Tateosians, Sandrounis, Karakashians, Balians, Der Mateossians, Odabashians, Sahagians, Torossians, Baghdassarians, Dikbikians, Jansezians, Boyadjians, Avedissians, Avakians, Shahinians, Bakerdjians, Marshalians and more.
We knew one another. We knew our walls. We knew our home.
This movement, this uproar, wasn’t an attack on the Patriarchate, for by that reasoning, the equally concerned 17 members of the St. James Brotherhood who condemned the leasing of the Goverou Bardez on the 15th of November 2021, also attacked the Patriarchate, and that is simply not the case. It was a desperate plea for communication in lieu of an indifference, a societal chasm that had plagued our community for far too long. We were all in the same proverbial boat, in harm’s way, yet forsaken to anonymity without a voice.
Following the second protest which took place a few days ago, in an unprecedented collaboration which hadn’t occurred in over half a century, a joint statement was released by three clubs — Homenetmen, Hoyetchmen, Pari Siradz:
In the past several weeks, many peaceful protests have been held by the Armenian community of Jerusalem against the fraudulent leasing of Armenian real estate properties, in particular ‘Cows’ Garden’ (Goveroun Bardez). It had become public knowledge that the said real estate had been covertly given away in an illegal 99-year lease to the XANA GARDES organization.
The impact of the illegal lease on the Armenian Quarter would be immeasurably detrimental to the presence and the national ethos of the Armenian presence in the Holy Land. The Armenian community utterly rejects the illegal 99-year lease of the historical “Cows’ Garden” and its environs. The illegal lease poses a great threat to the ubiquitous mosaic of the Holy City.
Consequently, we urge the Patriarch to revoke the contract and rescind all other promised contractual deals regarding the Cows’ Garden and the Armenian properties in general because the Armenian Quarter is the natural link to other Quarters in Jerusalem. The Armenian community is ready to submit any assistance to the Patriarch to revoke the contract.
The Armenian Community at large expresses and acknowledges with gratitude the efforts exerted by His Majesty King Abdullah the Second of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and His Excellency the President of Palestine, Dr. Mahmoud Abbas, who reaffirmed their commitments to the integrity of the Armenian Quarter, as well as maintaining the Armenian and Christian presence in Jerusalem.
We also call upon the relevant stakeholders and in particular, the Republic of Armenia and the Catholicos of all Armenians, Karekin II and to the Armenian communities worldwide to reach out to help and support the struggle of the Armenian Community in Jerusalem for transparency and justice.
We, Armenians, must unite and fight to protect our presence in the Holy Land which goes back to the 4th century C.E. As a united community, we demand answers and transparency of all illegal contracts in order to revoke them, and to protect Armenian properties against all attempts of illegal sales. This will create an enhanced environment for Jerusalem Armenians to flourish, prosper and develop against all attempts of illegal seizure of Armenian properties. Furthermore, it is imperative to note that the Holy Synod and General Assembly of the St. James Brotherhood never ratified this lease.
Many supportive statements have been issued by Jerusalem heads of Churches stressing the fact that the very presence of Christianity in the Holy City is being targeted and jeopardized by extremists. Finally, the contract isn’t just a real estate matter: it is politics at the highest level. The agreement makes a mockery of international law because it violates relevant covenants and decisions, which aim to preserve the status quo, governing Jerusalem. This international covenant protects the rights of the Armenian Church and Community. The main questions to be asked of Patriarch Manougian are these: why was the land leased and to whom?
Finally, the illegal sale/lease contract should be revoked and presented to the Armenian public.
On behalf of the Armenian clubs in Jerusalem,
The ever-present lackluster mantra of Khalas tskeh inch bidnes, yeghadzeh yeghav within our Saghimahay consciousness, to the delight of the sycophants who sought favoritism from the Patriarchate, had finally succumbed to the ire of a deep-rooted transnational beckoning.
However, the issue was far from over. The central tenet remained. “Why was the land leased and to whom?”
In his article, “The Risk of Leasing out Armenian Patriarchate land in Jerusalem,” Professor Z.S. Andrew Demirdjian stated, “The risk of losing this property through eminent domain is real. When a private piece of real estate has present or future benefit for the society, there is a real risk to lose it. The government steps in to buy it in the name of public good by invoking the law known as Eminent Domain.”
He continues: “In the Israeli case, Armenians will be one social group vs. Jewish group. The Superior Court would have the tendency to favor the latter over the former. The whole intention of Israel is to convert the country into a purely Jewish state regardless how long a minority has been living there. Armenians are already considered as second-class citizens. The prospects of Armenians in Israel seem dim, but we need to continue with our millennia-old tradition of having a piece of the Holy Land as the first nation in the world to have accepted Christianity as its state religion.”
It is important to note that today, in Jerusalem, and especially in the Old City, due to scarcity of public spaces, parking lots essentially are gold. In March 2021, the opening of the parking in the Goverou Bardez, following a 10-year lease agreement with the Jerusalem Municipality, was held with the attendance of Mayor Moshe Lion, with a few dozen Israeli flags covering the entire area, along with a meager Armenian flag, akin to a vassal state bowing down to its new occupiers. Mr. Lion was all smiles next to Fr. Yeretzian. Tell me, dear reader. When was the last time you saw a parking lot opening with flags flanking state dignitaries? Make no mistake, this is no ordinary parking lot. It is a plot of land on Mount Zion, a few hundred meters away from the Wailing Wall. Its significance, if it was forgotten to us, was never in doubt to the state of Israel.
In a recent article published by the Jerusalem Post, Mr. Lion granted an interview to journalist Peggy Cidor, who asked the following question: “According to news published this week, a large plot of land in the Armenian Quarter was purchased by an organization representing Jews, which has caused great concern among the city’s Armenian community. What is your position on that?”
Mr. Lion replied, “That is a private transaction; I have nothing to say about it.”
As the mayor of Jerusalem, of which Armenians are a historic part of its social fabric, pre-dating the state of Israel itself by at least 1,000 years; instead of reassuring us, instead of calming our fears, he opted to hide behind legal semantics.
From a state like Israel that has, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), “accounted for 69 percent of Azerbaijan’s arms import,” which more likely than not aided in the extinguishing of 5,000 souls, mostly young boys, more accountability ought to be demanded.
From a state like Israel, that has continuously denied the Armenian Genocide, in order to monopolize their suffering and maintain diplomatic ties with their Turkish and Azeri brothers in arms, at the expense of Armenian lives, nothing ought to be surprising anymore.
The message is clear, from their side, not ours: Israel will never be a friend of Armenia, and by extension, of the Armenian Diaspora.
I hope to God that Archbishop Manougian is doing everything in his power to prevent this cataclysm.
If we fail to void this deal, this encroachment warfare on our livelihood, on this plot of land of 11,500 meters squared so vital to our perpetuity, the next generation of Jerusalemite Armenians will be effectively murdered — not by physical weapons, not by mutilation, not by deportation, not by rape, all of which we, by now, have taken an involuntary historical familiarity to. This time, it will be the genocide of our souls. That is, if we remain silent.
Der Voghormia: An Armenian church hymn, “Lord, have mercy”
Tavajan: Armenian word for traitor
Homenetmen: Local Armenian club
Hoyetchmen: Local Armenian club
Pari Siradz: Local Armenian club
Ashkharagans: Armenian term used to describe civilians, general population
Hokevoragans: Armenian term used to describe members of the clergy
Saghimahays: Armenians of Jerusalem
Bezdig Pag: small courtyard
Medz Pag: main courtyard
Khalas tskeh inch bidnes, yeghadzeh yeghav: It’s over. Let it be. What can you do? Whatever happened, happened.
Vunkin Toor: The convent gate