When Clergy Come Under Attack, Why Church and State Remain Silent?

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Harut Sassounian Commentary 2004 October

A 21-year-old yeshiva (Jewish seminary) student spat at the cross being carried by Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, the Grand Sacristan of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, during an outdoor religious procession on Sunday, October 10. The Archbishop reacted by slapping the offending young man. During the ensuing scuffle, the chain of the Armenian clergyman's 17th century medallion broke. The Israeli police arrested the Jewish student who said that he spat at the cross "in order to protest idolatry." Pending a trial, the Jerusalem District Court banned the student from entering the Old City for 75 days.

The spitting incident was covered extensively by the international media.

Armenian communities throughout the world were quite incensed. Armenian passions were further inflamed when the Israeli police questioned Abp. Manougian and considered charging him with assault.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported, "religious Jews, among them yeshiva students, customarily spit on the ground as a sign of disgust on seeing the cross. The Armenians who live adjacent to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City suffer from this phenomenon more than any of the other Christian sects in the Old City."

Abp. Manougian told Haaretz that Armenian clergymen have already learned to live with these insults. "I no longer get worked up by people who turn around and spit when I pass them by in the street; but to approach in the middle of a religious procession and to spit on the cross in front of all the priests of the sect is humiliation that we are not prepared to accept," he said.

Using unusually blunt language, the Archbishop told Haaretz: "The Israeli government is anti-Christian." He also said: "When there is an attack against Jews anywhere in the world, the Israeli government is incensed, so why when our religion and pride are hurt, don't they take harsher measures?" According to Haaretz, "a policeman is customarily posted to guard the Armenians' procession, but he doesn't do anything to prevent the spitting. The Armenians took the matter up with Interior Minister Avraham Poraz some seven months ago, but nothing has been done about it till now."

Greek Orthodox clergymen reported last week that they too have been victims of similar spitting attacks in Jerusalem.

Abp. Manougian's bold words indicate that such ugly incidents are more than just a common occurrence. Catholicos Aram I issued a statement last week linking the spitting incident to the Israeli government's unstated policy of accelerating the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land. He pointed to "the existence of a well planned Israeli policy of Judiazation of Jerusalem. In fact, different manifestations of this policy are forcing the Christians to migration. It is a fact that the numerical size of Christian communities is very much reduced.... We cannot remain silent and indifferent in view of these attempts aimed at de-Christianization of Jerusalem."

Both Palestinians and Israelis quickly condemned the spitting incident.

Yasser Arafat, the Chairman of the PLO Executive Committee and the President of the Palestinian National Authority described the attack on the Armenian Archbishop as "a serious infringement upon the freedom of worship."

Daniel Rossing, a former advisor to Israel's Religious Affairs Ministry on Christian Affairs, told Haaretz that there has been an increase in the number of such incidents recently, "as part of a general atmosphere of lack of tolerance in the country." In an editorial titled, "Jerusalem's disgrace," Haaretz condemned "the disgraceful phenomenon of spitting at priests." The Jewish scholar Aviad Hacohen wrote in the Jerusalem Post: "The latest spitting incident is a mark of shame on Israeli society in the 21st century. A mark of moral and, no less, religious shame. That Jerusalem hooligan really did spit in someone's face. But not in the face of the Archbishop alone. Rather, he spit in the face of the Jewish people of Israel." Given the widespread outcry, Israel's Interior Minister Poraz expressed his "revulsion at repeated incidents of harassment by Jews against Christian clergy in Jerusalem."

On October 14, the police chief of the Old City organized a meeting of the representatives of the Armenian Patriarchate, the Jewish youth, his father, and the leaders of the seminary. The young man apologized for his offensive action. The Armenian clergy graciously accepted the apology. A committee of the Knesset (Israel's parliament) held a hearing on this incident with the participation of Armenian clergymen.

This incident has been rather satisfactorily resolved for now. However, it is not clear why, aside from Catholicos Aram I, no Armenian clergyman condemned the attack on Abp. Manougian? Furthermore, not a single Armenian government official issued a statement in defense of this high-ranking official of the Armenian Church. Why not?

Officials in Yerevan do not seem to realize that they have a moral obligation to defend the rights of fellow Armenians around the world. Even with their limited resources, they could have at least issued a statement on this incident. It is very disappointing to see Israelis, Palestinians and others come to the defense of the Armenian clergyman, while Armenian leaders themselves remain silent! The clergymen of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem themselves have been too timid in the past to speak out when their rights have been violated. This time, in addition to speaking out, the courageous Archbishop dared to slap the offending young man. Armenian clergy of the St. James Brotherhood, who have kept watch over Christianity's holiest shrines in Jerusalem for almost two millennia, need to be reassured that they would not be left alone when they come under attack either from fanatical individuals or government officials.

Meanwhile, Armenians should work with Israeli and Palestinian officials to promote peace and harmony in the city that is holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews alike.