Jerusalem- No room at the inn

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No room at the inn
By NICKY BLACKBURN

Jerusalem Post
Dec 24 2004

...

Lena Vahakian, an Armenian Christian, also celebrates Christmas festivities in a more subdued style than she did as a child. Born and brought up in the Old City of Jerusalem, she spent many of her Christmases in Bethlehem. As a member of an Armenian marching band, Vahakian would be invited to take part in celebrations with Palestinian marching bands on both December 25 and January 19, the date of the Armenian Christmas.

"We all played for each other's celebrations, everyone respected each other," says 25-year-old Vahakian. "There were choirs, orchestras, drums, and Scottish bagpipes playing all day long. We would visit friends and family, and someone would dress up as Santa Claus and give out dozens of presents. It was very festive."

The marching bands stopped when the intifada broke out. In the last two years, there have been no civic celebrations in Bethlehem either. "It's all changed," says Vahakian. "I don't feel safe going to Bethlehem, and even when the intifada stops, I don't know if it will ever be the same again."

The Armenian community in Jerusalem has also diminished drastically in size. Today there are only about 3,000 Armenians left in the Old City, and many of Vahakian's friends have emigrated. Vahakian visits her mother for Christmas. Her two sisters are abroad, so it is often just the two of them.

"It's nothing special," she admits. "We have the Christmas tree and give gifts, but it's not the same. I would love to be able to walk out on the street and see decorations or lights, but when I step out of my house now, I may not see another Christmas tree. Last year I saw a tiny Christmas tree in a shop and it made me smile. I feel sad that we do not have a proper Christmas here."

THE TRUTH is that it is never easy to belong to a minority anywhere in the world, particularly such a small one. Today, Christians make up just 2.1 percent of the Israeli population, compared to 79.2% Jews, and 14.9% Muslims, according to government statistics, and this figure is declining, as increasing numbers of Christians emigrate. Christians are also divided into various faiths, such as Greek and Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Anglican. Many Christians here liken their experiences at Christmas to what the Jews experience in the Diaspora during Jewish holidays.

Vahakian admits that though she would love to see Christmas trees on the streets, she does not expect the Jewish state to provide them.

"The Jews are scared to lose their identity because of what they have gone through in the past, and what they are still going through now with anti-Semitism. I think they fear that if they allowed a Christmas tree here or there, it would be the beginning of the end."

Though most Christians are the first to admit that minorities everywhere feel isolated, what many find difficult here is the feeling that they are an unwanted minority. For some, this translates into something as simple as being unable to get time off from work on Christmas Day, for others it is more invidious.

When Vahakian was young, her older sister, who now lives abroad, told her that when she grew up she would never wear a cross outside of her home. "Now I know what she means," admits Vahakian. "I still wear my cross sometimes, but people stare at me strangely."

Vahakian was born in Jerusalem. So was her mother and her grandmother before her. In fact, the family has been living in Jerusalem for five generations. Despite this, she does not have Israeli citizenship, nor does she have a passport. Instead, every time she or another member of the family wants to leave Israel, they have to go to the Ministry of the Interior to get special travel documents. These can take months to arrange, and sometimes trips have been cancelled simply because documents did not come in time.

"If you are Armenian and you live in Jerusalem, it's virtually impossible to get citizenship," says Vahakian, who has now hired a lawyer to fight for her right to a passport. "This is why so many Armenians have left. Life is just too hard here."

...

Some names have been changed.


Article was trimmed quite a bit to only leave section about Vahakian, which may or may not be the persons real name.




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