Spitting on Christians in Jerusalem raises eyebrows

By Mihran Kalaydjian, CHA

Spitting on Christians in Jerusalem raises eyebrows


JERUSALEM From his ceramics gallery along Armenian Patriarchate Road, Garo Sandrouni has a sweeping view of one of the Old City of Jerusalem’s longest thoroughfares, stretching from Jaffa Gate deep into the Jewish Quarter.

Jewish worshipers heading to and from the Western Wall jostle for space along the narrow passage with Armenian priests and seminarians, and Sandrouni says about once a week he finds himself breaking up fights between them.

Typically the skirmishes begin when a young yeshiva student spits on or near a group of teenage seminarians, who occasionally respond by beating up their attacker. Several years ago, a young religious man pulled a gun when Sandrouni moved to intervene in a fight.

“Most of the incidents that happen, unfortunately, they happen in front of my store,” said Sandrouni, who more than once has come to the aid of a yeshiva student bloodied after a run-in with a group of seminarians.

“Almost everybody, after the fight, they apologized,” Sandrouni said. “They say, ‘We are sorry. We didn’t know that their reaction would be so strong.’”

Attacks on Christian clergyman in Jerusalem are not a new phenomenon, and may result from an extreme interpretation of the Bible’s injunction to “abhor” idol worshipers. Five years ago, in what many say is the worst incident on record, a crucifix hanging from the neck of the Armenian archbishop, Nourhan Manougian, was broken in the course of an altercation with a yeshiva student who had spit on him.

Christian leaders stress that the problem is not one of Christian-Jewish relations in Israel. Most Israelis, they say, are peaceful and welcoming. In an interview with several Armenian Jerusalemites, they emphasized repeatedly that their relations with the largely religious community in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter are normal.

The assaults, according to George Hintlian, a spokesman for the Armenian community in Jerusalem, are carried out by people from the outside — visitors to Jerusalem from other towns, and even from abroad.

Several people familiar with the issue say the attacks recently have reached epidemic proportions — or at least enough that government officials and Orthodox rabbinic figures have begun to take notice.

A recent meeting between Foreign Ministry officials, the Jerusalem municipality and fervently Orthodox, or haredi, leaders resulted in a statement by Beth Din Tzedek, a haredi rabbinic tribunal, denouncing the phenomenon. In a sign of the ministry’s concern over the issue, both the meeting and the statement were publicized on the Web site of Israel’s diplomatic mission to the Vatican.

“Besides desecrating the Holy Name, which in itself represents a very grave sin, provoking gentiles is, according to our sages — blessed be their holy and righteous memory — forbidden and is liable to bring tragic consequences upon our own community, may God have mercy,” said the statement.

The incident that appears to have gotten the ministry’s attention occurred last September, when a pair of teenage Armenian seminarians reportedly fought with a young yeshiva student who spit on them. Police intervened, arrested the seminarians and referred the matter to the Interior Ministry.

According to Hintlian, the seminarians are now facing deportation — a decision the Armenians have officially protested. Carrying out the order would require the police to seize the boys from their seminary in the Old City, Hintlian said, which likely would result in a public relations disaster.

“It won’t happen easily,” Hintlian said. “They’ll think twice.”

Though they may bear the brunt of the phenomenon, given the proximity of the Armenian and Jewish quarters, cases of spitting are confined neither to Armenian clergy nor the Old City.

Athanasius Macora, a Texas-born Franciscan friar who lives in western Jerusalem, frequently has been the target of spitting during his nearly two decades residing in the Israeli capital.

Macora, whose brown habit easily identifies him as a Christian clergyman, says that while he has not endured any spitting incidents recently, recollections of past incidents started flowing over the course of 30-minute interview.

In a sitting room at Terra Sancta College, where he is the superior, Macora recalled the blond-haired man who spit at him on Agron Street, not far from the U.S. Consulate. Another time, walking with an Armenian priest in the same area, a man in a car opened his window to let the spittle fly. Once it was a group of yeshiva students in the Old City, another time a young girl.

Sometimes the assailants are clad in distinctive haredi garb; other times the attackers are wearing the knitted yarmulkes of the national religious camp. In almost all cases, though, they are young religious men.

A Franciscan church just outside the Old City walls was vandalized recently with anti-Christian graffiti, Macora said.

“I think it’s just a small group of people who are hostile, and a very small group of people,” Macora said. “If I go to offices or other places, a lot of people are very friendly.”

Meanwhile, the Beth Din Tzedek statement, and an earlier one from Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, have impressed the Christians and raised hopes that the spitting may soon end.

“We hope that this problem will be solved one day,” Sandrouni said, “for the sake of mutual coexistence.”

At birthplace of Jesus, only two people carry on tradition of ringing bells

By Mihran Kalaydjian, CHA

At birthplace of Jesus, only two people carry on tradition of ringing bells

BETHLEHEM, WEST BANK – A Palestinian college student is one of the last keepers of a fading tradition: ringing the bells of Bethlehem.

Khadir Jaraiseh climbs twice a week to the roof of the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born. He pulls the ropes of four bells in a rooftop tower for a total of 33 times to symbolize the number of years Jesus was believed to have lived.

Jaraiseh rings the bells for prayer services of the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of three denominations that administer the basilica, one of Christianity’s holiest shrines.

The Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox denominations at the basilica — each of which has its own set of bells — have switched to automatic bell ringers.

But there is something special about the traditional approach, said Jaraiseh, who uses both hands and a floor pedal to pull the ropes.

“I feel like I’m making music and talking to God,” said the 22-year-old, who has worked at the church for four years and is studying to become a tour guide. “There is nothing better than working in the place of Jesus’ birth.”

Jaraiseh rings the bells two days a week, and an older colleague covers the remaining five days. During the Christmas season, his task is particularly enjoyable, he said.

His rooftop perch offers a view of old stone houses and cobblestone alleys in the center of Bethlehem.

On Sunday, patches of snow were left on rooftops, remnants of a rare snowstorm that hit earlier this month. Much of the church was covered in scaffolding as part of urgent repairs of a leaking roof — the first face-lift in 600 years. Below, Manger Square was filled with tour groups, including visitors from India and Africa.

But the vista is disrupted by a string of Israeli settlements and Israel’s West Bank separation barrier in the background. Around Bethlehem, the barrier is made up of ugly gray cement slabs, one of the many manifestations of the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel portrays the separation barrier as a defense against militants, while Palestinians say it is an excuse for another Israeli land grab.

The conflict is ever-present in the Palestinian territories, even during the Christmas season. But tensions have dropped in recent years, the U.S. is making a new attempt to broker a peace deal, Bethlehem hotel rooms are booked through December and the number of visitors is rising steadily.

Jaraiseh said Christmas remains the highlight of his year despite the political situation. “We wait for it. It’s a happy day,” he said.

The Armenians mark Christmas on Jan. 19. The day before, Jaraiseh rings the bells for longer than usual while the Christmas Eve procession of the Armenian patriarch makes its way into church.

Though Jaraiseh is the bell-ringer for the Armenians, he is Roman Catholic and celebrates Christmas on Dec. 25.

The Greek Orthodox switched to a computerized system after their bell ringer died a few years ago.

“We just press the button, without any need to go up to the roof in bad or good weather,” said Issa Talgiyeh, a Greek Orthodox priest.

“This is much easier,” he said — though he acknowledged that the bells rung by hand sound more beautiful.

The Roman Catholics went the same route, using a generator to back up the system.

The Armenians initially had five bells that were installed in 1923. One was damaged during Israel’s 2002 siege of the church when Palestinian gunmen were holed up inside the shrine for 40 days.

Khat Joundourian, a senior Armenian priest, said his church decided to preserve tradition. “What if one day the computer (for the bells) doesn’t work or needs to be reset?” he said. “Would we skip the call to prayer?”



Hagopian: Jerusalem Odyssey: Part 1, The Return

Arthur Hagopian, the former press officer of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, who currently lives in Australia, has just returned from a short visit to the Old City after a 15-year hiatus. This is the first in a series of articles he will be writing during his brief sojourn there.

JERUSALEM. The 777 Thai Airways took off from Sydney more than a quarter of an hour late, but the crew made up for it with an abundance of solicitous courtesy and exemplary service.

It would be a 9-hour flight to Bangkok and then another grueling 11 hours aboard an El Al 767 bound for Tel Aviv.

For the first time in 15 years, I was returning to Jerusalem, the city of my birth, on an odyssey fraught with expectation and a modicum of trepidation.

It would be a journey of rediscovery and reacquaintance.

I dislike flying, but the offer made to me by a North American film company—to go to Jerusalem and act as an advisor, guide, and consultant to the producer—was one I could not refuse.

“I’ll take a knockout pill and sleep throughout the flight,” I said.

With this thought to buttress me, and some Zen training to boost my courage, I got aboard the plane.

Thankfully, air turbulence put on a desultory performance, and I managed to put up with the occasional buffeting of the aircraft. There was even no need for a sleeping tablet: The laptop kept me occupied for a few hours and the fine in-flight collection of new videos helped while away the time. The landing, which I had thought of as a dreaded passage to purgatory, was smooth, as if choreographed by a maestro.

I was travelling on my Australian passport but as I handed it to border control at the Tel Aviv airport, the word “Jerusalem” seemed to jump out of the page, piquing the interest of the Israeli officer on duty.

“You are a Sabra?” he asked with a broad smile, using the popular appellation for native Jews.

His fingers were flying over the computer.

“Actually, I am not Jewish,” I told him.

His fingers paused for a minute, and a frown creased his face.

“Please to wait,” he told me, motioning me aside, as other passengers streamed by. Their passports hardly merited more than a cursory inspection.

I had heard of instances of returning non-Jewish Jerusalemites, who had obtained foreign citizenship, being subjected to what amounted to the third-degree upon arrival at Israeli ports of entry. There had even been reports of people being forced to give up their Israeli IDs in order to enter or leave the country.

But I had a different agenda.

“Is there a problem?” I asked.

“No problem. Just one minute.”

It was taking longer than that.

“Look,” I said. “I am a foreign correspondent. I have been invited here as an advisor on a feature film about Jerusalem which will be made by a North American company. I have a meeting in an hour’s time with the producers. I need to be there.”

“Wait please,” he said again.

“I cannot wait,” I countered. “If there is a problem, take it up with the Government Press Office [GPO]. I am supposed to be driving to Jerusalem now. You’re going to make me late.”

The GPO, an adjunct of the Prime Minister’s office, was the official body catering to the foreign press corps in Israel.

“Just one moment, please.” He picked up his phone.

I flipped open my mobile and started to make some calls of my own—to the producers to explain the delay and to old contacts within the GPO and other governmental departments.

I raised my voice to make a point and noticed the officer watching me intently. Suddenly, he got up and hurried out. A few minutes later, I was called back to another office by a policewoman.

“Welcome to Israel,” she said with a coquettish smile, handing over my passport.

I checked the pages. They had issued me with a B2 tourist visa, valid for three months. I wasn’t staying that long, two weeks at most. Some travelers, particularly those who later intend on visiting neighboring Arab countries or places not friendly to Israel, usually ask that their passports not be stamped to avoid problems at border crossings. Instead, they are issued visas on a separate card or piece of paper, as there is genuine concern that the imprint of an Israeli stamp on their passports would automatically bar them entry into Syria, Lebanon, Iran, or other blacklisted spots.

I thanked the girl and made my way out.

We drove to Jerusalem in a sherut, a shared cab, a convenient way to travel if you do not mind the runaround and hassle: Each passenger has to be dropped off at his destination in and around the city one by one. You have to sit out your turn.

And forget about road courtesy. It has been said that Israelis drive their cars as if they are tanks, to the dismay of pedestrians who have to race them across zebra crossings. Giving way seems an alien imposition, blithely ignored.

The driver had his mobile glued to his ear while manipulating his car with his left hand, signals were neither used nor acknowledged, and he made lavish use of the horn to punctuate a point or argument.

Parking, I found out, is one luxury that is almost universally denied Jerusalem’s hapless motorists. Old City residents in particular are so desperate that they are willing to pay up to $100 a month for a spot—some a brisk 10-minute walk from their homes.

On both sides of the highway, stunted olive trees jutted out in hesitant exultation over scree and boulder as they sought purchase in rocky pastures, while occasional patches of greenery gave promise of abundance in the politically troubled land of milk and honey.

My fellow passengers were a loquacious lot, bubbling with excitement at the prospect of seeing “Yerushalaym”—a few of them for the first time.

“I’ve been away 14 years, and have come back to recharge my batteries,” one religious Jew from Baltimore, Md., said, adjusting his black kippa (yarmulka).

As we neared the approaches to the city, an unsettling sight greeted us: huge furrows in the road, gouging out a path for a proposed railroad that would serve Jerusalem and outlying suburbs. It was an eyesore many people I talked to detested.

“This is madness,” one Israeli later commented to me. “Who needs a train to Pisgat Ze’ev or French Hill [two Jewish suburbs minutes away from the city center]?”

Many Arabs call it a desecration.

At the threshold to Jaffa Gate, a new tunnel had been churned out of the earth to channel traffic around the Old City, but the hole is regarded as further perfidy by purists.

“Town Hall has lost its senses, piling ugliness upon ugliness on our beautiful Jerusalem,” mourned an elderly Jew.

Inside the Old City itself, however, the planners had kept their picks and shovels under wraps, and desisted from tampering too noticeably with its ancient hallowedness.

The sherut crawled up Jaffa Gate and as it disgorged its last passenger, I was struck by the teeming crowds of tourists, interspersed by the pervading presence of security men and women, bristling with full riot equipment. They had staked claims to every strategic corner or road, their appearance intended to be reassuring to visitors, but a cause of mute and bitter anguish for the city’s Arab citizens.

I dumped my bags in the private apartment I had rented in the Christian Quarter, and hurried to keep my appointment with the film producers.