Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia Nervous At Middle East Meltdown

Historic ties with Jerusalem and its environs give Armenians special reason to be worried about the worsening violence in the Middle East
By Ara Tadevosyan

At the height of the recent siege of the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem, Armen Sinanian, 22, an Armenian novice monk was seriously wounded by an Israeli sniper, having been apparently mistaken for a Palestinian gunman.

The incident brought to a head Yerevan’s concerns over the military operation, prompting the foreign ministry to issue a statement urging Israel “to call a ceasefire, quickly withdraw its forces from the Palestinian territories” and return to the negotiating table.

Armenia follows events in the Middle East closely, as its national church owns around a third of the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – two of the holiest sites in the region.

Yerevan has consistently expressed greater support for the Arab position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has stuck by its alliance with another foe of Israel, Iran. The Armenian foreign minister, Vartan Oskanian, told parliament last month that President George Bush’s speech including Tehran in “an axis of evil” had “led to additional tension and this, in its turn, has caused complications in our region”.

Yerevan is especially concerned about the fate of the Armenian quarter of the Old City. This thorny issue is probably one reason why Israel’s ambassador to Armenia, Rivka Cohen, who is based in Georgia, has visited Yerevan four times this year.

A dispute over the status of Jerusalem contributed to the collapse of the

Camp David peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians in 2000. It was proposed that the Old City should be divided into two parts, with the Jewish and Armenian quarters falling under Israeli control and the Christian and Muslim quarters under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

The three heads of the Greek Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic) and Armenian Christian churches in Jerusalem, were not informed about this proposal and appealed after the event to President Bill Clinton, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to invite them to the next round of negotiations “so that our collective presence in Jerusalem was unambiguously preserved and fully guaranteed”.

The three patriarchs declared that they regarded “the Christian and Armenian quarters of the Old City as inseparable and contiguous entities that are firmly united by the same faith”.

The 28 acres of the Armenian quarter in Jerusalem, home to about 50 monks and 6-700 lay residents, comprises one sixth of the historic centre of the city.

Armenians are worried that their presence there, first laid down in law in the seventh century, is under threat. Moreover, around half of the two thousand Armenians in Jerusalem live in the Christian and Muslim quarters. They are worried that a division of the city would split their community.

The Yerevan government has developed strong ties with the Palestinians. On his first visit to the region in January 2000, President Robert Kocharian told Arafat, “Every people has leaders, who come and go. You however, who have led the struggle of your people for so many years, have become an inseparable part of world politics”.

The close ties between Armenia and a string of countries hostile to Israel are also a sore point in the relationship between Yerevan and Tel Aviv. Last year, Armenian defence minister Serzh Sarkisian visited Damascus and Beirut and signed military agreements with both Syria and Lebanon.

In April, Armenia’s ambassador in Beirut delivered a message from Foreign Minister Oskanian to his Lebanese counterpart, saying, “the Armenian authorities are in solidarity with the people of Lebanon, especially at this time when the Arab world is facing new threats”.

At the same time, at the height of the siege of the Church of the Nativity, Kocharian visited the United Arab Emirates. On the eve of his trip, the governing regime paid him an “act of gratitude” for his position on the Palestinian issue, by screening a documentary film about the 1915 Armenian Genocide on national television.

Israel for its part has a strong military and diplomatic relationship with Armenia’s traditional enemy, Turkey. And Israeli ambassador Rivka Cohen’s refusal to call the killings in Turkey in 1915 a genocide, caused a storm of protest in Yerevan and calls for her to be declared persona non grata.

As positions harden between Israel and the Palestinians, the strong ties between Armenia and the Arab world look set to define its policy in the Middle East and position on Jerusalem.

Ara Tadevosian is director of Mediamax news agency in Yerevan.