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A New Ethno-Religious Entity in British Mandate Palestine: The Armenian Catholic community

Une nouvelle entité ethno-religieuse dans la Palestine du Mandat britannique : la communauté arménienne catholique
Sossie Andézian
p. 115-141


This article analyses the dynamics of the formation of the Armenian Catholic community in Jerusalem, a process that began in 1854 and accelerated with the arrival of the genocide survivors during the first decades of the twentieth century. The Armenian Catholic Church became one of Jerusalem’s officially recognised Churches, with the title Patriarchal Vicariate, and its lay community received its own distinct status as one of the city’s religious communities. The community really took shape in the 1930s, during the British Mandate, under the combined impact of the British Government’s communitarianist policy and the impetus from Armenian political and cultural organisations to reconstruct national institutions in their adopted countries.

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  • 1 A. Jacobson, 2011; see also Y. b. Bassat and E. Ginio, 2011.

1As Abigail Jacobson has pointed out1, the new political and social reality that prevailed between 1912 and 1920 in Palestine, which corresponds to the last years of the Ottoman Empire and the beginning of the British Mandate, led to the renegotiation and the reconceptualisation of national and communal identities. At the same time, the British administration fixed the national and communal categories along religious lines and even created new ones. The Armenian Catholic community in Jerusalem is one of these new officially recognised ethno-religious entities.

  • 2 See in particular H. Laurens, 2002; I. Pappe, 2004.
  • 3 Life in Jerusalem during the British Mandate was depicted in autobiographies. The book of J.M. Rose (...)

2Regardless of its small size, a study of the Armenian Catholic community of Jerusalem is relevant with regard to the emergence of new communities in Palestine during the British Mandate. Although the policy of the British Mandate is well documented in the academic literature2, research has been mainly concerned with the two major communities, namely the Arab and Jewish communities, and their conflicting nationalisms. Little is known about the actual implementation of the Mandate among small groups, such as the Armenians or the Samaritans. An analysis of the case of the Armenian Catholics might shed light on the mechanisms of forming communities in a multi-ethnic and a multi-religious society and on their integration into a disputed space that is saturated with the sacred3. It might also illustrate the process of the reorganisation of individual and collective life by Armenian refugees in the diaspora as well as the Churches role in it.

3The Armenian community of Jerusalem is characterised by its diversity. It reflects the complexity of the multifaceted identity of the Armenian people, scattered all over the world but with an independent state since 1990, the Republic of Armenia. The Armenians of Jerusalem are organised around two Churches, the Armenian Apostolic Church which is the see of one of the three Patriarchates of Jerusalem (with the Greek Orthodox and the Latin ones) and one of the three custodians of the Holy places (with the Greek Orthodox Church and the Franciscan order), and the Armenian Catholic Exarchate which is the custodian of the third and fourth stations of the Cross. Therefore, for Armenians worldwide, Jerusalem is a spiritual reference and a place of pilgrimage. But Jerusalem is also home for an Armenian diaspora which was established there throughout centuries by three major waves: between eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mostly pilgrims and traders, but also immigrants or refugees escaping the hardship or the massacres in the Armenian provinces of the Ottoman Empire; after 1915 with the survivors of the genocide; and from 1990 on, when around 12,000 Armenians from the ex-Soviet Union immigrated to Israel as Jews or as families having ties with Jews. Some of them have asserted their Armenian identity and have joined the Armenian communities in the Israeli towns. The Armenian Catholics are part of the second wave of Armenian refugees.

  • 4 The site was attested after the discovery of a piece of mosaic representing a pair of sandals, whic (...)
  • 5 It is Fr Hovannes Gamsaragan, vicar from 1961 to 1978, who has decorated the church, which was shap (...)

4The Armenian Catholic church Our Lady of Sorrows, situated in the Muslim quarter on Via Dolorosa on the site of the Catholic third and fourth stations of the Cross4, is one of the Armenian “lieux de mémoire” in Jerusalem. In addition to being a parish church, it is also a place of international Christian pilgrimage. Above the main altar, an inscription dedicates the church to the victims of the genocide5. In 2005, on the centenary of its consecration, a khatchkar (an Armenian cross-stone) was erected in the courtyard in memory of the Armenian martyrs.

  • 6 Tanzimât: sing. tanzîm (“reorganisation” in Arabic). A movement of institutional, economic and soci (...)
  • 7 This was in theory. Difficulties remained even after the adoption of the Ottoman Land Law in Palest (...)

5The Armenian Catholic Church in Jerusalem was founded in the second half of the nineteenth century, from 1854 on, during the Ottoman reforms (tanzimât)6, when the status of the religious endowments (awqâf, sing. waqf) was transformed and the acquisition of land by non-Muslims was made easier7. In addition, these reforms introduced the creation of new Churches and religious communities, namely Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. Catholicism was expanding after the reestablishment of the Latin Patriarchate in 1847, and competition with the Orthodox and Protestant Churches in terms of attracting the local population was high.

  • 8 See H. Laurens, 1999 and 2002; P. Bourmaud, 2009; M. Qafisheh, 2010.
  • 9 Families had also left for Armenia in 1947 during the diaspora repatriation movement.

6The Armenian Catholic Church or the Armenian Catholic Patriarchal Vicariate of Jerusalem as it was called, was first established as a pilgrimage centre for the Armenians of the Empire (and elsewhere) and for other Catholic pilgrims. It had also the project of settling an Armenian lay community by converting the Armenian Apostolics, which was in line with the Roman Catholic Church’s plans to develop Catholicism in the Holy Land and to reclaim the holy places. Over time it became one of the officially recognised Churches in Jerusalem, and the Armenian Catholic community became one of the new ethno-religious communities with its own specific personal status. Two factors contributed to its formation. The fist factor was the arrival of Armenian refugees, survivors of the genocide from 1915 on, and the Armenian political and cultural organisations’ aim to reconstruct national institutions within their countries of adoption. The second factor was the British Mandate (1922–1948) policy to promote the settlement of Jewish immigrants in Palestine8, which led to the division of the Palestinian society into communities that were separated along religious lines. Three different stages can be distinguished in the formation of this community: first, the construction of a place of pilgrimage (1854–1914); second, the reception of the refugees and the handling of their administrative and social problems (1915–1930); and, third, the development of an infrastructure including schools, cultural and sports societies, housing, clubs and the publication of a magazine, Yerusaghem [Jerusalem] (1930–1948). However, the community never grew beyond a thousand members. It reached its peak in terms of numbers during the 1930s before declining in the wake of the partition of Palestine in 1948, when most of the population left for the surrounding Arab countries or for Western countries9.

7My data are based on the Armenian Catholic Church’s “archives” in Jerusalem. Actually these are not official archives; they are rather parochial documents that I have classified myself on request of Mgr George Khazoumian who was the vicar from 2001 to 2005. I myself was doing an ethnographic fieldwork on the Armenian memories in Jerusalem. As he was restoring the crypt of the church in 2003, he found three boxes of documents concerning the foundation of the Church in Jerusalem. He asked me if I could write the history of the Church. I was very happy to have the opportunity to do it, but the documents were all jumbled together and they first needed to be put in order. A year later, he found more boxes in the attic while workers were fixing the roof of the convent. These were covered up with rubble and they were going to the garbage. So they were rescued by chance. I had to clean them up from the dust. Moreover, as I was going back to France after a five-year stay as a researcher in Jerusalem, I did not have enough time to classify all the documents. I had to get back every other summer till 2014 in order to organise what we might call the “pre-archives”. In the summer of 2012 two old suitcases full of documents were found. Eventually I managed to put them in order in the summer of 2014. The next step would be the digitalisation of the documents but the Church’s hierarchy does not want to put them online nor to open them to the public. The documents are composed of administrative papers concerning the property, correspondence with various authorities (public authorities; religious institutions, either local or international; diplomatic corps); private correspondence; parochial registers; diaries; autobiographies; exchanges with the members of the community. They span a period from 1856 to 1982, then they become more and more scarce. They are written in different languages: Armenian, Turkish, Arabic, French, Italian, English. Some official documents written in Ottoman Turkish were translated into French. I happen to read all these languages. In this article I used only the documents which were dated and signed. I must point out that I used them as an anthropologist and not as a historian. I compared them with other archives from the Catholic Church, the diplomatic corps and the city of Jerusalem as well as with various French journals, such as the Franciscans’ La Terre Sainte, where I found several articles concerning the Church. Ethnographic fieldwork carried out since 1999 has also given me the opportunity to collect oral histories.

A missionary Church?

8The Armenian Catholic Church was officially founded in 1742, with the former Apostolic bishop of Aleppo, Apraham Ardzivian, established as its head by Pope Benedictus xiv. Excluded from the Armenian Apostolic Church and exiled, Ardzivian took refuge in the Keserwan district of Mount Lebanon, where he was welcomed by the Maronite Church’s Patriarch. He settled in an Armenian Antonine monastery and took on the title Catholicos of Cilicia for the Armenian Catholics. After his death, his successor built the nearby monastery of Bzommar, which became a seminary and summer residency, and it remains so today. The Patriarchate itself was settled in Beirut.

  • 10 Millet: a community-based system of organisation for non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire, who were su (...)

9In 1831, the Armenian Catholic community of Constantinople, which was, till then, part of the Armenian millet10 under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch, gained the status of an independent millet headed by a Patriarch, which enjoyed the same rights as the other non-Muslim communities of the Empire. The see of the Patriarchate was transferred to Constantinople between 1866 and 1867 by its titular, Andon Hassoun, who combined both titles of civil chief and spiritual chief. The see returned to Lebanon in 1928, this time in Beirut, where it has remained ever since.

  • 11 P. Duvignau, 1972.

10According to Pierre Duvignau11, biographer of the Latin Patriarch Joseph Valerga, it was Valerga who suggested to the Armenian Catholic Patriarch that he should build a church in Jerusalem after he had noticed a movement of conversion to the Latin rite among Armenians in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. At that time, the Vatican had changed its strategy with regard to its missionary action, and promoted the conversion of their compatriots by indigenous priests. The Armenian Catholic Church in Jerusalem was then both a missionary Church, for it sought to convert or return the “schismatic Armenians” to the Universal Catholic Church, and a local Church, as one of the new millets of the Ottoman Empire.

  • 12 Archives of the Vicaratiate of the Armenian Catholic Church, Jerusalem [AVACC], extract from an unp (...)
  • 13 Archives of the Public Record Office, London, FO 78/1217, 1856.
  • 14 ‘A.R. Abu Husayn, S. Sa‘adawi, 1998, p. 41-42.

11When the Vicariate applied for a permit to build a church on the plots of land that it had acquired in 1856 in Jerusalem, the response of the Ottoman authorities was: “There is no such community as Armenian Catholic”12. They were influenced by the British Consul James Finn, who opposed the project for he was supporting the conversion of the local population to Protestantism13. Nevertheless, in 1887, while the process of the construction was secretly underway by Fr Hovaguim (Joachim) Toumayan, a firman (imperial decree) was obtained, which legalised it14.

Father Hovaguim Toumayan, ancestor of the Armenian Catholics in the Holy Land?

  • 15 This “complex” covers an area of 1,770m2 and comprises a presbytery, a hostel for pilgrims, two res (...)
  • 16 For more information on this category of Armenians, see J.M. Rose, 1993; B. Vaux, 2002, p. 231-254.

12Among other names, the site was known as Beit Abûna Wakîm, the house of Father Joachim in Arabic, who is considered as its founder. During the inauguration of the crypt in 2005 following its restoration15, many Armenian Jerusalemites discovered the name of this priest. His patronymic suggests that he belonged to the Armenian community of Jerusalem, referred to as the kaghakatsi (lit. “the people of the city”), in other words to the community that was established in Jerusalem before the genocide. Although most members of this community came to settle in the city during the course of the nineteenth century, they claim to be the descendants of the Armenian king Hethoum, who visited Jerusalem in the Middle Ages. Considering themselves autochtonous Armenian Jerusalemites, they still speak their own dialect mixed with Arabic, and they have their own church within the compound of the Patriarchate and their own traditions. It is among this community that we can find the bearers of the rituals during religious ceremonies. The majority belongs to the Armenian Apostolic Church and most of them live in the Armenian quarter16.

  • 17 AVACC, typed text of 39 pages in Classical Armenian, unpublished.
  • 18 Dragoman: chancellor.

13Given that the plots of land had been purchased by Fr Seraphin Tavitian (Fr Toumayan’s predecessor) in 1856 and that he had also built the first chapel on the site of the third station, how had Fr Toumayan, born in 1848 to an Armenian Apostolic family, become the founder of the Armenian Catholic Church and community in Jerusalem? As Fr Toumayan reports in his autobiography17, his conversion happened in a special way. He was not converted by Fr Tavitian. Rather, his family became Latin in 1859 after an argument with the dragoman18 of the Armenian Patriarchate over a family affair. The dragoman subsequently expelled them from their home, which belonged to the Patriarchate: “They went to the Franciscans and they became Latin”. The young Kevork (his baptism name) was then eleven years old. He was sent to the Franciscan school and soon expressed a desire to become a Franciscan friar. As his parents opposed his plan, he went to see the Latin Patriarch:

When he learnt that I was Armenian, he advised me to go to Fr Tavitian who could send me to Lebanon, to the Armenian Catholic seminary. I didn’t know him. I didn’t even know that there was a community called Armenian Catholic. I thought he was making fun of me. I left with a broken heart and decided to go to the desert and become a hermit and live an ascetic life. But, as I did not have the courage to go alone, I tried to convince some of my school friends. One day, we left the city for the desert. But some of them had told their parents about the plan, and we were caught, and I was strongly reprimanded. After that, I remained alone and tried to achieve my aim of becoming a priest.

14Eventually, he was taken to the seminary in Lebanon by Archbishop Mikael Alexandrian in 1864. He was ordained as an Armenian Catholic priest in 1866 and sent as a murahhas vekili (an officially appointed vicar) to Jerusalem, where he stayed until he died in 1929. He dedicated all his vicariate to the building of the church, the crypt and the presbytery. He reported in his autobiography all the difficulties he encountered during the construction of the church, which lasted almost half a century. The church was finally inaugurated in 1905.

15The case of Fr Toumayan is relevant in the process of conversion to Catholicism in Eastern societies. As a child, he followed his parents into becoming Latin. He seems to have adhered to the new rite more strongly than his parents, who were prepared to turn back to their family’s rite under pressure from the dragoman. However, when he declared his intention to become a Franciscan friar, he was sent back to his national community and ordained an Armenian Catholic priest, before returning to Jerusalem to protect the Church’s newly acquired holy sites. In keeping with the Vatican’s new policy, he had returned to his homeland as an indigenous Catholic missionary, in charge of converting his co-nationals to the Catholic faith.

16Among all the vicars, Fr Toumayan was the only Jerusalemite. He was fluent in the languages spoken by the locals, Armenian and Arabic, (as well as in French and Italian), and he was well acquainted with the local customs. He had an extended network of relations in this nineteenth-century cosmopolitan city. Among his relations were the members of renowned Muslim families, who held important positions in the government, such as the Husseinis. He was rooted both in Eastern society and in the society of the Western missionaries. Thus, he was able to mobilise interest in his project from within local and international networks.

  • 19 Fr P. Sarkissian, 1906, p. 511-516.

17All those who wrote about Fr Toumayan’s contribution to the founding of the site described it as an apostolate and a continuous battle against the various political and religious powers. There were endless procedures to obtain building permits, raise funds and gain the support of his own hierarchy as well as that of the Catholic Church. He appeared to have been at once a discoverer of a holy place, administrator, negotiator, pastor, building contractor and mason.19 His work could be inscribed in the continuity of the Armenian monks, who are said to have participated in the discovery and building of the holy places during the first centuries of Christianity. Moreover, at his own request, Fr Toumayan was buried in the crypt next to the mosaic of the sandals in the shadow of the statue of the encounter between Mary and her son. Through his mediation, the Armenian Catholic Church is able to root itself in the Holy Land and claims to be an indigenous Church, even though its centre is located in Lebanon. This is how the collective memory of the Armenian Catholic Church has retained his name as its eponymous ancestor in Jerusalem.

The rise of a lay community

A post-genocide community

  • 20 The Hashemite Emirate of Transjordan was created in 1921 under British control. It gained its indep (...)
  • 21 For more details on their itineraries, see R. Kévorkian, 2006.

18The Armenian Catholic community of Jerusalem is a post-genocide community. It mainly consists of refugees and deported people, who first arrived in Jerusalem from 1915 on. Some of them returned to Cilicia from 1918 to 1921 when the area was controlled by the French who had promised the creation of an “Armenian National Home”. But soon they had to flee new massacres when the French army was defeated by the Turks and had left. They took refuge first in Transjordan20 and then in Jerusalem in 1921-1922. Other refugees from the surrounding Arab countries (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq) also subsequently settled there, seeking job opportunities. The accounts from the following two witnesses illustrate the kinds of journeys that led refugees to Jerusalem21 and how they converted to the Armenian or Latin Catholic rite:

19Narrative of Mrs. E.A. (1924–2011), Interview in Armenian, November 2009:

  • 22 E.A. married an Armenian Latin at the age of fourteen, but the whole family adopted the Armenian Ca (...)

My mother was from Dörtyol, a district of Adana. She had eight children. Her husband died during the deportation and her children were killed. She remained alone with her sister, who was pregnant. They [the Turks] took the baby from her womb, and they killed her. She was survived by two daughters. One of them was kidnapped by the Turks. This was in 1914. My mother arrived in Aleppo with one child, a boy. She waited in an assistance centre for workers. From Aleppo, she went to Iskenderun [Alexandretta], where she met my father, from Cesarea (Kayseri). He had been married to a Greek woman, who had died. He had two daughters. They [E.A.’s parents] got married and had two daughters. I was the second one. My mother was almost fifty when I was born. Once again, they had to flee from the Turks. My father had a cousin in Amman who had told him to come there. From Iskenderun, they went to Amman. They arrived in Jarash on horseback. My father had a toothache. He died after he had his tooth extracted with dirty instruments. I was two months old; my sister, two years old. My mother went to Jerusalem in 1927 with the two of us. As there was no space left in the Armenian convent, she became Latin and the Franciscans gave her shelter and money, and they placed my sister and me at the Sisters of Sion orphanage.22

20Letter in Armenian from a prisoner, S.M., to the Armenian Catholic vicar, early 1930s:

  • 23 The Armenian Catholic priest responded to his request and he adopted the Armenian Catholic rite.

I arrived in Jerusalem six years ago. The Kemalist regime had forced all Armenians from inner Turkey to escape to Syria or elsewhere. Like thousands of other people, I took to the road in a caravan, twenty-two days on foot. We crossed valleys and mountains in the cold winter, and we eventually made it to Aleppo. I stayed in pitiful conditions for three months, starving and thirsty, without work. I was a schoolboy. What could I have done? Nothing. I wanted to go to Damascus, thinking that it would be better. There, I had a bit of luck. The need to survive forced me to learn a craft. I enrolled with a gunsmith. I worked enthusiastically and within a year and a half, I had reached my goal and wanted to learn other crafts. I learnt the art of mosaics and of mother-of-pearl. I made some pieces and opened my own shop, and I started working. I even started repairing stoves and gramophones, so I was doing extremely well in life. And this is when the French political crisis and the local crisis suddenly broke out. I was once again forced to destroy the nest I had created, and I came straight here to Jerusalem. I’ve been here for six years now. I’ve had a great many difficulties, but I succeeded in opening a shop. But today, orphaned since the age of sixteen, with no family, having been through a thousand and one difficulties, I am left to the four winds. And as if all this suffering was not enough, this time, an “honorable” [he means dishonest] friend... because of him, I am in prison. One hundred and sixty days to go before the trial. I am so desperate that I am going mad. Will I be able to enjoy life one day? I belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, but I have sent letters twice asking for an Armenian priest to bring me communion, but no answer. I decided to accept the Catholic Church. I would like you to send me an Armenian Catholic priest who might console me. I kiss your hand.23

21Fr Toumayan did not set up an Armenian Catholic lay community. Instead, he set up a pilgrimage centre with the help of Western priests, mainly French, who visited the site. His plan to establish a seminary was not fulfilled, but as he had good relationships with Western Catholic congregations, he managed to place orphans there. All of them converted to Catholicism. Some became nuns or priests, some remained there to work, and others left.

  • 24 For more details on the orphanages, see V. Tachjian, 2006, p. 82-91.
  • 25 This fact was denied by the Patriarchate.

22It was during the vicariate of Fr Moumdjian (1921-1929) that the Armenian Catholic community started to take shape. His diary, where he recorded his activities on a daily basis, as well as his correspondence help to paint a picture of what it was to become. As mentioned above, Armenian refugees had started to arrive as early as 1915. The Armenian Patriarchate organised their settlement within its precincts, either in the pilgrims’ houses or in tents, while the orphans were dispatched to two orphanages, one for girls and one for boys, before being sent to Lebanon and Egypt24. However, the Patriarchate was quickly overwhelmed by the growing number of arrivals. Fr Hovsep (Joseph) Moumdjian would visit the Catholic families who had taken refuge there “in order to meet their spiritual needs”. These were families who had been converted in their hometowns by Western missionaries. A signed petition, sent to Fr Moumdjian, indicates that the Patriarchate had refused to take in any more people and had expelled Catholic families25.

23Fr Moumdjian had to face the challenge of finding shelter for these people. Some of them rented the unoccupied presbytery rooms, but most had to ask for assistance from the Franciscans. The latter were already helping Armenian refugees by providing them with accommodation, bread and money and by schooling their children. In exchange for this, the refugees had to convert to the Latin rite, although the Vatican was against this policy. In order to resolve this dilemma, the vicar accepted their conversion to the Latin rite, but he negotiated with the Franciscans in order to administer the sacraments to them himself in his church. Confusion resulted from this dual membership as these people were counted as Latins in the official records and as Armenian Catholics in the Church records.

24Fr Moumdjian persevered with his plan to set up and organise an Armenian Catholic community in Jerusalem, on the one hand to help the refugees overcome the tragedy they had experienced and on the other, to safeguard and moreover develop both the Armenian Catholic creed and the Armenian language and culture. Unlike the majority of the Armenians, who were residing in or around the Patriarchate, most of the Armenian Catholics were scattered along the streets of the Christian and Muslim quarters. Families were all crammed into one unhealthy room. There were several widows with children among them. With the exception of one dentist and one pharmacist, the other heads of the families were mainly craftsmen (shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, etc.) with a few shopkeepers and unskilled workers. The number of the unemployed was also high. Fr Moumdjian travelled across the country from Bethlehem to Beit Jala, Artas, Beit Jamal, Jaffa and Haifa, in search of genocide survivors. He found some of them in the city of Salt in Central Transjordan. Together with the Latin parish priest there, he managed their spiritual life. He visited them on a regular basis to perform baptisms, marriages and funerals.

  • 26 From Marash, Adana, Kharpert, Dörtyol, etc.

25The community he organised comprised several territorial networks, whose anchorage point was the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows in Jerusalem. As its members could never all meet together physically, the community he founded was rather an imagined one based on common references, namely a common fate as survivors of the genocide with disrupted lives and dislocated families, the shared need to reconstruct a new life in a foreign country and shared common values, one of which was that Catholicism was supposed to be the best creed. Fr Moumdjian sought to create close relations among individuals who had previously resided in the same localities. He identified every member by his/her region of origin. When people were mentioned, he referred to them as Marashtsi, Adanatsi, Kharpertsi, Dörtyoltsi, and so on26. When he had to deliver a certificate for a baptism or a marriage that had been celebrated in their hometown, he would appeal for people from the same hometown to be witnesses, making them godfathers and godmothers. This practice strengthened the bond between compatriots and made them feel a sense of responsibility to one another. He did the same with converts. Such types of events represented a real “rite de passage” and connoted rebirth as a new individual. The candidate had to abjure his old faith, generally the Armenian Apostolic faith, and adhere to the new Armenian Catholic creed. The conversion would take place in the church of Our Lady of Sorrows, in the presence of the vicar and two or more witnesses, who had to testify to it with their signature. As the government was controlling the conversions, these had to be registered with the names of the witnesses. After their conversion, Fr Moumdjian was in charge of their religious education and training.

26He also set up a cultural association, called Sourp Hovsep (St Joseph) after his patron saint. One of the aims of this association was to teach the Armenian language and diffuse Armenian culture among a population of Turkish speakers. Some of the people were able to read the Armenian characters, but their daily language remained Turkish. Along with a few Armenian intellectuals, he organised catechism lessons in Turkish and Armenian language courses as well as talks about religion. Having an Armenian school was of the utmost importance to him, but he was not able to realise this dream.

Towards the future: Education of the youth

  • 27 The full text of the British Mandate Order in Council can be read online : The Palestine Order in C (...)
  • 28 Until 1918, the system of education in Palestine was ruled by the Ottoman law of 1869.

27Fr Moumdjian’s wish to set up an Armenian Catholic school was not realised until Fr Hagop Guiragossian’s vicariate (1930–1949). According to article 5 of the British Mandate Order in Council27, paragraph 2, the communities had the right to keep their schools and to teach their members in their own language, provided that they would conform with the general prescriptions of the public instruction28. A central commission was set up in 1921 in order to advise the Director of the Education. Local commissions composed of the Governor of the District and of the local education officials were created. In 1920 and 1921, 75 schools were founded, but this was not possible the following years because of the lack of financial means. Therefore, the project of providing the whole country with schools was not achieved. In 1930, only 13,2% of the children in Palestine were schooled.

28Three different Armenian Catholic schools were opened in succession. The first was a kindergarden and elementary school, run by the Armenian Catholic Mekhitarist Congregation from Venice (1931-1938). Opened for boys only at first, it was soon extended to girls. The second was a kindergarden and elementary school for both girls and boys, run by the Sisters of the Armenian Catholic Congregation Immaculate Conception (1942-1962). The third was a kindergarden, named Narek, run by vicars (1964-1978).

29Education of the youth was viewed as the layer on which to reshape a new Armenian identity with modern values. Having been trained in the Pontifical Colleges in Rome, Fr Guiragossian (like Fr Moumdjian) had a good knowledge of both the Italian and French languages and cultures as well as the Armenian language and culture. His ambition was to transmit to the young Armenian refugees both the Armenian and the Western cultures. But as they were living in an Arab country, he considered that they should learn Arabic too. In his letter to the head of the Congregation of the Oriental Churches, Cardinal Sincero, he wrote:

  • 29 AVACC, letter of 2 April 1930 (in French).

Whoever is the manager of a school is the manager of the future of humanity. It is only through education that we forge the soul of the youth, the man of the future, who will establish the reign of God. Insuring the future of families, the good of the State, peace in society and the advancement of civilisation. There are 500 Armenian Catholics. We need to have an Armenian elementary school for boys, first of all. Of course, they could get this education in Catholic schools, but their national feeling would be threatened. They need to learn their national language; that cannot be done in the Catholic schools. It is not out of excessive nationalism, but because the Church has always defended and continues to defend the nations.29

  • 30 One can suppose that he is alluding to the Armenian school of the Patriarchate. There the school wa (...)

30He then went on to list the benefits of the project: preventing the perversion of youth in non-Catholic schools30; saving the population from the danger of being absorbed and assimilated; creating a common language (i.e. Armenian) in the community in order to “nurture them with the Divine Word”; maintaining the spirit of the Church as well as “the beautiful and venerated Armenian rite”; remedying ignorance and religious indifference, especially in the case of new converts; maintaining a united community of worshippers and exerting a saintly function and beneficial sacerdotal ministry; and, finally, bringing the dissident brothers back into the bosom of the Church and encouraging ecclesiastical vocations. Teaching the Armenian language and providing a Christian (i.e. Catholic) education formed the basis of the project. At the same time, Fr Guiragossian highlighted the need to combine the programme with other Catholic schools’ programmes in order to allow pupils to pursue higher education in Catholic institutions.

  • 31 AVACC, letter of 4 April 1930 (in Armenian).

31In his opinion, the Mekhitarists were the most appropriate religious order to manage the project. They were specialised in this field, and they were well-known among the Armenian population for being good educators as well as patriots, and this would attract even the non-Catholics. They had the means and the staff to ensure that the Congregation would always be able to support and develop the school. In his response to the letter, Cardinal Sincero supported the project, stating that he hoped “it would be fruitful in the spreading of the Catholic faith among the Armenians of Palestine31.

  • 32 Two of the three official languages with Hebrew.

32The first school opened in 1931 with around 70 pupils. In addition to the Armenian language, the children were taught English and Arabic32, and there was a special programme in French. In a 1934-1935 report, the director highlighted the fact that progress had been made in spoken Armenian: “They can pray in Armenian, they have learnt all the liturgical songs, they can participate in the choir”. He commented on the growth of the national and religious feelings among parents. However, by 1936, the Mekhitarist director decided to leave. Aside from the political situation and the financial shortage, there were problems with an Armenian Franciscan Friar, Fr Anton Akyllian, who had opposed the project from the start. It is said that he had threatened the families who wanted to send their children to this school, to deprive them of financial aid from the Custody. He had accused the Armenian Catholic priests of nationalism, and he had argued that he himself was giving Armenian language courses in the Franciscan school. Of the 70 children enrolled on the first day of school in 1931, 34 were of Latin rite, but only 14% of the 150 Latin families had sent their children there. Under pressure from Akyllian, 16 of them were pulled out.

33The Mekhitarists eventually withdrew from the project in 1938. Fr Guiragossian felt let down, but persevered with the mission under very difficult conditions. He asked the Patriarch to send Armenian Catholic sisters. Three nuns arrived in 1942 and, with the assistance of four teachers, gave the school a new impetus. The school received finance from several sources: the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate (in Lebanon), the Palestine Government’s Director of Education, the French Consulate (who forced them to teach French also), the Franciscans (who used to donate one Palestinian Pound for each pupil of Latin rite) and the Italian Consulate. The remainder of the funding was met by the sisters, who sold handmade artefacts during the fairs that they organised. There were approximately 160 pupils per year between 1941 and 1945. The majority were Armenian Catholics with around 60 Latins, 15 Armenian Apostolics and one Greek Orthodox. The school was free, but well-off families were asked to contribute financially, however none did. Some parents preferred to send their children to foreign schools. At the end of each year, the school provided statistics for the government’s annual evaluation.

34After 1948, the number of pupils dropped, but the sisters maintained the school until 1962. A kindergarden was founded in 1964, part-financed by the Belgian Foundation, which requested that children would be admitted without discrimination on the grounds of religious affiliation or political opinion. Hence, Muslim children were also allowed to attend the school. When the Foundation became bankrupt, the Church asked the Belgian consulate for help, however the funding they had pledged was not received on regular basis, and the kindergarden was closed in 1978.

How many were they?

35The conversions played a great part in the steady growth in the number of Armenian Catholics. There were different categories of converts. Widowers, like E.A.’s mother, whom the Franciscans provided with shelter, bread and financial aid. Families that had been expelled from the Patriarchate compound and newcomers who had been denied entry due to lack of space, who were taken care of by the Franciscans too. In addition, some individuals, like the prisoner cited above, who felt they had been abandoned by the Armenian Apostolic priests and were helped by the Armenian Catholic priest. The Catholic congregations’ orphanages also played their part by converting orphans (boys and girls) to whom they gave a home, like E.A. and her sister. Some of the refugees had already been converted in their localities of origin in Cilicia. Most of these came from the city of Marash, where there was a large presence of Western Catholic and Protestant missionaries. Some of the new immigrants who entered Palestine during the 1930s were already Armenian Catholic or Armenian Latin, others were converted in Jerusalem. It was natural growth, however, through marriages and births, which seems to have played the biggest role in increasing the number of community members. According to the archives of the Vicariate, 13 marriages and 60 baptisms and confirmations were celebrated between 1921 and 1929.

36It is not easy to give accurate figures of Armenian Catholics. Counting the members of the religious communities in the Middle East is never a simple task, even today. According to the communal personal status, births are registered by religious institutions, principally in the baptism registers for the Christians, so the baptismal certificate constitutes the birth certificate. When the government of the Mandate carried out censuses, the figures it collected were those provided by the heads of the religious communities. In the case of the Armenians specifically, there are additional factors that make it difficult to obtain exact numbers. The people who survived the genocide left their homes without any official identity papers. Most of them were orphans. The parishes that they were affiliated to were destroyed, their priests were killed and their godparents had disappeared. If they were required to prove their identity, the vicar of Jerusalem would officially identify them by drawing up a document attesting their place of birth and their baptismal and marriage certificates in the presence of two witnesses from their hometown.

37The second obstacle is the fact that many belonged to two different rites within the Catholic Church, namely the Armenian rite and the Latin rite. Although the vicars managed to make these people follow the Armenian rite in relation to their worshipping and the sacraments, they were officially counted as Latins. In the Vicariate’s archives, there are two different listings of members according to the rite they belonged to. In the statistics, moreover, the number of Armenian Catholics varied according to the criteria used in the counting.

38The third reason for the difficulty in enumerating community membership is the frequent ritual changes that took place, whether through personal choice or following a marriage. This resulted in a state of uncertainty with regard to the religious identity of these people.

  • 33 E. Mills, 1933. vol. 3, table 7, part 2.

39Nevertheless, it is possible to give an idea of the number of Armenian Catholics in Palestine between 1921, when Fr Moumdjian began to establish the community, and 1948, when a number of families left the country following the partition of Palestine. According to the Vicariate’s register, there was a total of 55 individuals in 1921, while in 1931 the British Census records a figure of 33033. In 1947, the records of the Vicariate show that the number of Armenian Catholics had reached 490 and that the number of the Armenian Latins was higher at 600. In total, there were a thousand and ninety members.

From stateless subjects to Palestinian citizens

40The Armenian Catholic Community in Palestine gained in terms of both legality and visibility following the administrative measures taken by the Government of the Mandate as regards the ethno-religious communities. The Church had already been legalised in 1887 through an Ottoman firman (imperial order), which had authorised the building of a convent and a place of pilgrimage. The lay community gradually became legalised following the implementation of the Palestinian Citizenship Order in Council (1925).

  • 34 Unilaterally declared by Great Britain in 1920, the British Mandate for Palestine was to come into (...)
  • 35 According to article 9 of the Mandate Order in Council, the personal status of the different commun (...)
  • 36 “I the undersigned, the Patriarchal Vicar of the Armenian Catholic Church in Jerusalem, certify fro (...)

41The Mandate for Palestine (1922)34 and the Treaty of Lausanne (24 July 1923) gave a distinct nationality to Palestine, namely Palestinian. According to article 30 of the Treaty, all Ottoman subjects who were settled on territories that were detached from the Ottoman Empire were to become subjects of those (new) States. In the case of Palestine, they had to be residing there between 6 August 1924, when the Treaty of Lausanne came into force, and 1 August 1925, when the Palestinian Citizenship Order in Council started to be implemented. In addition, the Armenian Catholics were officially recognised as a community35, with the vicar as its head, and the texts of law of the Church’s court concerning personal status were adopted and applied by the Government. As the official leader of his community, both spiritual and temporal, the vicar was in charge of the religious life of his members as well as of all the administrative aspects of their life. He was in touch with the governmental departments on daily basis. For instance, he was the only person entitled to provide the certificates necessary for Palestinian citizenship applications and to fill out the “Evidence of Habitual Residence”36.

42It was also possible to acquire Palestinian citizenship through naturalisation. The British Mandate, which aimed at creating a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine following the Balfour Declaration (1917), allowed the Jewish population to grow by regularising the immigrants, who were given Palestinian citizenship. This policy gave rise to growing tensions with the indigenous Arab population and led to the Arab uprising. Small communities such as the Armenians benefitted indirectly from this situation. The division of the inhabitants of Palestine into religious groups expedited the creation of an Armenian Catholic Community.

43Following the Immigration Order in Council (1931), many Armenian refugees, whose influx did not abate, were regularised. Job opportunities attracted people from the surrounding Arab countries, where they had first settled. All those who had entered Palestine before 14 July 1931 on a three-month visa as pilgrims, tourists, visitors or temporary employees, in other words those who had no identity cards or passports and who were residing illegally, had to be declared before 31 December 1931. They needed to have employment, residency, good conduct and they had to speak one of the three official languages. However, correspondence between the vicar and the British Government shows that this was not a straightforward matter. According to Fr Guiragossian, who complained to the District Commissioner on their behalf, many were denied regularisation even though they had fulfilled the requirements. One woman, who had entered the country with her child but had failed to regularise her situation after the three-month period, was arrested and put in prison. The vicar had to negotiate her release with the District Commissioner.

  • 37 For more details, see P. Bourmaud, 2009.

44Although the vicar, as representative of the Armenian Catholic Patriarch, was acting as the official head of his community and, as such, was supposed to enjoy autonomy in managing the personal status of his subjects, we can see in the figures of the 1922 and 1931 censuses that the British Mandate had set up a system of control over the community by recording all aspects of their lives. Births, marriages, divorces, deaths and even conversions, which were all recorded in the Church’s registers, had to also be sent to the District Commissioner and recorded in the official registers. The importance of such administrative documents, which were contained in the archives of Fr Guiragossian, is evidence of the many hours the heads of the communities spent filling in governmental forms each day. The censuses were a means of controlling the number of members of the different communities37. At the same time, the figures contributed to rendering the Armenian Catholics official existence.

Delimitating communal boundaries

  • 38 See F. Barth, 1969.

45The making of an Armenian Catholic community in Jerusalem was one of drawing boundaries, physical as well as symbolic ones, with other groups. The construction of identities in multi-ethnic societies is a dynamic process of defining and redefining their boundaries by the different groups which interact with each other38. As a religious institution, the Church was seeking to gain a position in the Holy Land, both as the custodian of a holy place and as a missionary Church, aimed at converting all Armenians to Catholicism. It settled, together with other Catholic Churches, along the Via Dolorosa, the old Ottoman administrative headquarters, and it participated in the (re)christianisation of this part of the Muslim quarter. The monastery stands 500 meters from the Al-Aqsa Mosque, next to the Naqshabandiyya zâwiya, that is another Muslim place of worship and at the crossroads of the itineraries of the Muslim worshippers. Fr. Toumayan was asked by the government to construct a road between the zâwiya and the monastery which will be surrounded by walls and gates.

46Although an Oriental Catholic Church united to Rome, it asserted itself as an Armenian Church, using the same scriptural sources, liturgy and language as the National Armenian Apostolic Church. It thus achieved a specific identity among the Oriental Catholic Churches whose liturgical language was mainly Arabic. While also attracting Western Catholics, the pilgrimage centre was primarily dedicated to Armenian pilgrims, and, prior to the construction of a hostel, most of the pilgrims were accommodated in the presbytery. Fr Toumayan’s use of the French expression “Foyer National pour les Arméniens” (National Home for Armenians) indicates the Church’s intention to also establish an Armenian lay community. Fr Guiragossian worked hard to obtain in 1943 a distinct plot in the Franciscan cemetery on Mount Sion to bury the deceased of the community.

  • 39 AVACC, letter of May 1937 to the Armenian Catholic Patriarch in Lebanon (in Armenian).

47Rather than considering itself a peripheral Catholic Church, however, the Armenian Catholic community took an active role in reflecting on the position and future of Oriental Catholicism within the Universal Church, as attested in the numerous unpublished writings of Fr Guiragossian on this topic found in the archives of the Vicariate. On the ground, the vicars experienced difficulties with some of the Franciscan friars. Fr Guiragossian reproached them for turning the refugees into “beggars”, dependent on charity and “living off the back of religion”39. He urged the refugees to be autonomous and to take responsibility. Hence, his request for the funds that the Franciscans dedicated to helping those Armenians in need, to be given to the Vicariate, so that it could build low-rent housing in the convent compound. He even tried to discourage Armenian families from entering Palestine if their sole purpose was to get help from the Franciscans.

48The Armenian Catholic Church never severed its ties with the Armenian Patriarchate even though relations seem to have been tense, especially in 1939 when the Armenian media launched a polemic concerning the “latinisation” of the Armenian Church, thus reactivating an old debate. They shared a common historical and cultural background and faced the same responsibilities towards the refugees following the genocide. Both worked hard to meet the refugees’ material and spiritual needs. They provided shelter, food and employment, managed their personal status problems and mediated with the administration in order to regularise their status. In the absence of an Armenian political structure, they strove, together with political and charitable organisations, to rebuild national institutions in the diaspora, such as churches, orphanages, schools, dispensaries and cultural associations. At the same time, the presence of the refugees provided them with an incentive to construct new structures.

  • 40 For Armenian associations in Jerusalem during the Mandate, see B. Der Matossian, 2011.

49The Armenian Catholic Church built a school, clubs and apartments for community members, and it renovated old institutions (church, presbytery, hostel), installing electricity and water. Like all the other communities, it created sports and cultural associations40, a scouts group and a band (all these initiatives were encouraged by the British Government). The cultural and sports activities served to integrate Armenian Catholics into the cultural space of the country. The scouts’ and the band’s participation in official ceremonies where they were assigned a definite place in the ceremonies’ layout plans, helped the community to achieve greater visibility and legitimacy. The vicars were invited to all official celebrations as well as to Government and diplomatic corps receptions.

50The cultural activities of the Church were twofold: on the one hand, they were directed at community members and limited to the private sphere; on the other, they were directed at the outside world and were performed in the public sphere. The publication in Armenian of the periodical Yerusaghem (Jerusalem) from 1943 to 1948, which had subscribers throughout the Armenian diaspora, was one of the many initiatives directed inwards. Music performances, plays, sports matches (football, basketball) and mass broadcasts were examples of activities directed outwards. Thus, the Church was working in two directions. As well as preserving and developing the diffusion of Armenian culture among Armenian Catholic community members, it also infused Armenian culture into the public sphere as part of Palestinian culture, thereby officialising it.

51How did the lay Armenian Catholics in Jerusalem negotiate their identity in this so-called multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, set up by the British Mandate? As with all social groups, they constructed their identity, both individual and collective, with reference to the various symbolic resources at their disposal. They shared a common territorial identity, namely Palestinian citizenship, with all the other groups that made up Jerusalem. They quickly began to contribute to the economy of the city through their skills as craftsmen and the shops that they opened. Those who were educated and fluent in Western languages held positions in Government. Some worked as clerks in banks or in various other institutions. Some even owned factories (paper mill, confectionery). Over time, a number of families, whose economic condition had improved, joined other well-off families in the new urban areas (Baq‘a, Talbieh, etc.). However, they did not actively take part in the Arab uprising against the British Mandate and the immigration of Jews, which started at the beginning of the 1920s and reached its peak from 1936 to 1939. Nevertheless, we can see from the Vicariate archives that Armenians were concerned about the situation, which was resulting in violence, curfews, unemployment and the rationing of food, fuel and other items.

  • 41 There were very few marriages with Muslims or Jews. In all cases, the Armenian identity of the fami (...)

52All Armenians had some sort of connection with Arabs (both Muslim and Christian), and to a lesser degree with Jews, in their workplaces and/or in their neighbourhoods and schools. Mixed marriages have occurred mainly with Christian Arabs41. Regardless of whether or not children had gone to the elementary school at the Vicariate, they had to go to the Catholic or Protestant colleges, where they experienced interethnic and interreligious relations with other Christians, as well as Muslims and Jews. These relations were more pronounced outside the city, where community members were more isolated.

53At the same time, they were strongly attached to their Armenian identity. While the phenomenon of conversion may have split families into different Churches, it did not affect their sense of national belonging. Even those who had adopted the Latin rite frequented the various Armenian Catholic and non-Catholic associations in the city. Moreover, marriages between Catholics and Apostolics were numerous. Although their cultural and social lives may have revolved around the Church, the Armenians also created their own associations (such as the “compatriots” associations), which took no account of religious identity. Associations attached to the traditional political parties were also mixed in terms of religious affiliation. While the British Government had established symbolic boundaries between two categories of the same ethnic–national group, and had strengthened them with legal measures, the Armenian national identity was still firmly asserted by both sub-groups.


54Although a very small one, the Armenian Catholic community has participated in the fabric of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Mandatory Palestinian society. As a religious institution, the Church held a position among the custodians of the holy places and it contributed to the expansion of Catholicism in Jerusalem. It took part in the modernisation of the urban landscape of the old city by building a monastery, places of worship, a hostel for pilgrims, accommodation for the community. It has its share in the development of the educational and the cultural realm, especially by spreading the Armenian language among its members. It has helped Armenian refugees to get the Palestinian citizenship and administered their personal status.

  • 42 They are granted special identity cards as residents of Jerusalem, which allow them to work and to (...)

55Unlike the Lebanese or the Syrian citizenships which were kept by the Armenian refugees residing in Lebanon and Syria at the end of the French Mandate, the Palestinian citizenship ceased to exist at the end of the British Mandate in Palestine and the creation of Israel in 1948. The non-Jewish communities which remained in the cities that became Israeli (Haifa, Jaffa, Nazareth, Ramleh) obtained Israeli citizenship. Those who stayed in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem or who took refuge there, areas administrated by the Kingdom of Jordan, were given Jordanian passports but this did not grant them Jordanian citizenship. Different juridical statuses have followed since then, according to the statuses of the territories they were living in. Until now the non-Jewish population in East Jerusalem, where the majority of the Armenians live, has no citizenship as the status of Jerusalem is not fixed yet42. In such an unstable legal condition, the importance of the religious communities is enhanced since their heads are still in charge of the personal status and the protection of their members. The Jerusalem Armenian Catholic community was established according to the same process as that of the other Armenian diasporic groups after the genocide. However, its survival is dependent on the Church more than elsewhere. Today, the Armenian Catholic parish in Jerusalem is less active. It is increasingly becoming a pilgrimage centre for international visitors. However, it remains an Armenian “lieu de mémoire”, for it represents part of the history of the Armenian Church and the Armenian post-genocide diaspora in Jerusalem.

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Abû Husayn ‘Abd al-Rahim and Sa‘adawî Saleh, Al-kana’is al-‘arabiyya fil-sijjil al-kana‘isi al-uthmani (1869-1922) [The Arab Churches in the Ottoman Church records], Amman : Royal Institute for Religious studies, 1998.

Andézian Sossie, “Aux origines de l’Église arménienne catholique de Jérusalem”, Archives de Sciences sociales des religions, vol. 151, 2010, p. 47-69.

Barth Fredrick (ed.), Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference, Bergen, Oslo, London: Universitetsforlaget, George Allen and Unwin, 1969.

Bourmaud Philippe, “Construction nationale et discrimination au Proche-Orient. De la fin de l’Empire ottoman à nos jours”, Vingtième siècle. Revue d’histoire, no. 103, 2009, p. 62-76.

Braude Benjamin, “Foundation myths of the millet system”, in Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis (eds.), Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The functioning of a plural society, vol. 1, The Central Land, New York, London: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1982, p. 69-90.

Chatelard Géraldine, “The Constitution of Christian Communal Boundaries and Spheres in Jordan”, Journal of Church and State, vol. 52, no. 3, 2010, p. 476-502.

Der Matossian Bedros, “The Armenians of Palestine 1918-48”, Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 41, no. 1, 2011, p. 1-21.

Duvignau Pierre, Une vie au service de l’Église: S.B. Mgr. Joseph Valerga, Jerusalem: Imprimerie du Patriarcat latin, 1972.

Jacobson Abigail, From Empire to Empire. Jerusalem between Ottoman and British rule, Syracuse, New York : Syracuse University Press, 2011.

Kévorkian Raymond, Le génocide des Arméniens, Paris: Odile Jacob, 2006.

Laurens Henry, La Question de Palestine (1799-1922), vol. 1, L’invention de la Terre sainte, Paris: Fayard, 1999.

Laurens Henry, La Question de Palestine (1922-1947), vol. 2, Une mission sacrée de civilisation, Paris: Fayard, 2002.

Mills Eric, Census of Palestine 1931, London: Whitehead Morris Limited, 1933.

Moch Maurice, Le Mandat britannique en Palestine, Paris: Éditions Albert Mechelinck, 1932.

Pappe Ilan, A History of Modern Palestine. One land, Two peoples, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Qafisheh Mutaz M., “Genèse de la citoyenneté en Palestine et en Israël. Nationalité palestinienne de 1917 à 1925”, Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem, [En ligne], no. 21, 2010, Consulted on 11 february 2015. URL :

Rose John Melkon, Armenians of Jerusalem: Memories of Life in Palestine, London: Radcliffe Press, 1993.

Sarkissian Parsegh Fr, “Hayotz Diramor talgatzmane nevirial noragatzouytz Mayr Tzavakin yegueghetzin y Sourp Yeroussaghem” [The Armenian church Our Lady of Sorrows recently built and dedicated to the spasm of the Virgin in saintly Jerusalem], Pazmaveb, 1906, p. 511-516.

Sroor Musa, Fondations pieuses en mouvement. De la transformation du statut de propriété des biens waqfs à Jérusalem 1858-1917, Damascus: Presses de l’Ifpo, Iremam, 2010.

Tachjian Vahé, “Orphelinats arméniens du Liban de Syrie et de Palestine”, in Raymond Kévorkian, Lévon Nordiguian, Vahé Tachjian (eds.), Les Arméniens. 1917-1939. La quête d’un refuge, Beirut: Presses de l’Université Saint-Joseph, 2006, p. 82-91.

Vaux Bert, “The Armenian Dialects of Jerusalem”, in Michael Stone, Roberta Ervine and Nira Stone (eds.), The Armenians in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, Leuven, Paris, Sterling (Virginia): Peeters, 2002, p. 231-254.

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1 A. Jacobson, 2011; see also Y. b. Bassat and E. Ginio, 2011.

2 See in particular H. Laurens, 2002; I. Pappe, 2004.

3 Life in Jerusalem during the British Mandate was depicted in autobiographies. The book of J.M. Rose, 1993, is one of the most illustrative of this period. Recently an article dealing with the condition of the Armenians in Palestine during the Mandate was published by a historian, B. Der Matossian, 2011, p. 24-44. But as the author had no access to the archives of the Armenian Catholic Vicariate, his information about the Armenian Catholics is not complete.

4 The site was attested after the discovery of a piece of mosaic representing a pair of sandals, which were said to be the footprints of Mary. The remains of two inscriptions were found: one in Greek (never deciphered) and one in Latin, where the syllable “smo” was said to be the end of the word “spasmo”. This word commemorates the falling of Christ under the heavy cross (third station) and then his encounter with his mother, who had fainted (fourth station). For more details on the foundation of the pilgrimage centre, see S. Andézian, 2010, p. 47-69.

5 It is Fr Hovannes Gamsaragan, vicar from 1961 to 1978, who has decorated the church, which was shaped like a Latin church, with an altar in the Armenian style. He invited the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch, Yeghishe Derderian, to inaugurate it.

6 Tanzimât: sing. tanzîm (“reorganisation” in Arabic). A movement of institutional, economic and social reform which started on 3 November 1839 with the imperial rescript or Hatt-i Sherif of Gülhane. Its aim was the modernisation of the Ottoman Empire. As regards the condition of non-Muslims, it was supposed to enforce the rule of law for all subjects of the Empire by guaranteeing the right to life and property for all. A new rescript, the Hatt-i Hemayoun (1856), was intended to implement the clauses of the Gülhane rescript, in order to achieve full legal equality for members of all religions.

7 This was in theory. Difficulties remained even after the adoption of the Ottoman Land Law in Palestine in 1858. See M. Sroor, 2010.

8 See H. Laurens, 1999 and 2002; P. Bourmaud, 2009; M. Qafisheh, 2010.

9 Families had also left for Armenia in 1947 during the diaspora repatriation movement.

10 Millet: a community-based system of organisation for non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire, who were supposed to enjoy autonomy in the administration of their religious and cultural lives as well as personal status under the authority of a spiritual leader. For a critical review of this concept see B. Braude, 1982, p. 69-90.

11 P. Duvignau, 1972.

12 Archives of the Vicaratiate of the Armenian Catholic Church, Jerusalem [AVACC], extract from an unpublished (typed) and unsigned draft of the history of the Church (in Armenian).

13 Archives of the Public Record Office, London, FO 78/1217, 1856.

14 ‘A.R. Abu Husayn, S. Sa‘adawi, 1998, p. 41-42.

15 This “complex” covers an area of 1,770m2 and comprises a presbytery, a hostel for pilgrims, two residential buildings, a cafeteria, a souvenir shop and places of worship, namely a church and a crypt. The crypt was restored in 2000 and houses the statue of the encounter, with the soil having been covered again with the sandals mosaic. This is where Fr Toumayan is buried. In 2009, an altar was built on the left-hand side for the perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and consecrated as the “Jerusalem Peace Centre”. There is a priest in charge of the parish, but parishioners’ number has now drastically declined.

16 For more information on this category of Armenians, see J.M. Rose, 1993; B. Vaux, 2002, p. 231-254.

17 AVACC, typed text of 39 pages in Classical Armenian, unpublished.

18 Dragoman: chancellor.

19 Fr P. Sarkissian, 1906, p. 511-516.

20 The Hashemite Emirate of Transjordan was created in 1921 under British control. It gained its independence on May 1946 and took on the name Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

21 For more details on their itineraries, see R. Kévorkian, 2006.

22 E.A. married an Armenian Latin at the age of fourteen, but the whole family adopted the Armenian Catholic rite in the 1970s.

23 The Armenian Catholic priest responded to his request and he adopted the Armenian Catholic rite.

24 For more details on the orphanages, see V. Tachjian, 2006, p. 82-91.

25 This fact was denied by the Patriarchate.

26 From Marash, Adana, Kharpert, Dörtyol, etc.

27 The full text of the British Mandate Order in Council can be read online : The Palestine Order in Council, 1922, For a thorough analysis of the text see M. Moch, 1932.

28 Until 1918, the system of education in Palestine was ruled by the Ottoman law of 1869.

29 AVACC, letter of 2 April 1930 (in French).

30 One can suppose that he is alluding to the Armenian school of the Patriarchate. There the school was established first for boys in 1840 and then for girls in 1862. Both were united in 1869. A new school was built in 1927 in order to take in the children of the refugees too.

31 AVACC, letter of 4 April 1930 (in Armenian).

32 Two of the three official languages with Hebrew.

33 E. Mills, 1933. vol. 3, table 7, part 2.

34 Unilaterally declared by Great Britain in 1920, the British Mandate for Palestine was to come into force on 29 September 1923, after being adopted by the Council of the League of Nations on 24 July 1922.

35 According to article 9 of the Mandate Order in Council, the personal status of the different communities as well as their religious interests had to be guaranteed. The Armenian Catholic Church was one of ten Churches to gain jurisdiction on the matter of personal status. The other nine Churches were the Eastern Orthodox, the Latin (Catholic), the Gregorian (Apostolic) Armenian, the Syrian Catholic, the Chaldean, the Greek Catholic, the Maronite and the Syrian Orthodox. The Jewish community was also included as one enjoying specific personal status (copy of the document in the archives of the Vicariate, AVACC).

36 “I the undersigned, the Patriarchal Vicar of the Armenian Catholic Church in Jerusalem, certify from personal knowledge that ... who was born at ... on... was an Ottoman subject and habitually resident in Palestine on the 6th of August 1924 and the 1st of August 1925, and has not changed his or her nationality since” (copy in the archives of the Vicariate, AVACC).

37 For more details, see P. Bourmaud, 2009.

38 See F. Barth, 1969.

39 AVACC, letter of May 1937 to the Armenian Catholic Patriarch in Lebanon (in Armenian).

40 For Armenian associations in Jerusalem during the Mandate, see B. Der Matossian, 2011.

41 There were very few marriages with Muslims or Jews. In all cases, the Armenian identity of the family was maintained (language and names, for example).

42 They are granted special identity cards as residents of Jerusalem, which allow them to work and to move in Israel, whereas those living in the West Bank need special temporary permits to enter Israel. They also receive social security benefits. But these rights are not immutable and can be revoked in some situations such as having been out of the city for more than seven years.

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Bibliographical reference

Sossie Andézian, « A New Ethno-Religious Entity in British Mandate Palestine: The Armenian Catholic community », Études arméniennes contemporaines, 9 | 2017, 115-141.

Electronic reference

Sossie Andézian, « A New Ethno-Religious Entity in British Mandate Palestine: The Armenian Catholic community », Études arméniennes contemporaines [Online], 9 | 2017, Online since 30 October 2017, connection on 20 January 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/eac.1117

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