By Arthur Hagopian
Jerusalem, Oct 22 – The epic odyssey of the boy Avedis, from the sandstorms of the Iraqi desert, to the golden throne of St James in Jerusalem, wound down to its inevitable close this week, as the coffin slowly descended into the grave, clods of earth raining down upon the lid, a final farewell: earth to earth.
The heavens themselves seemed to blaze forth the death of the prince, Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, 96th in line of succession from Abraham, the first leader of the Armenian Church in the Holy Land.
In a hauntingly solemn ceremony, his fellow princes had led Manoogian to his final resting place in the Armenian cemetery of St Saviors, a stone's throw from the bullet-riddled Zion Gate, one of seven that punctuate the 500-years old Walls of the Old City.
Thousands of people, some of whom had flown in expressly for the occasion, watched the funeral or accompanied the cortege, the narrow streets of the Old City and the confined space within the cemetery making it impossible to accommodate more than a fraction of their number.
For the first time within living memory, the whole city seemed to have risen as one to pay tribute to the man who gave pungent definition to the terms “glasnost” and “perestroika,” and who helped usher a new era of stability and prosperity for his diminishing and dispirited fold.
Putting aside their differences for a brief spell, leaders or representatives of practically every house of God in Jerusalem, whether Christians, or the ones who call Him Yahweh, or those who call Him Allah, and of every political affiliation in the country, marched in the mournful funeral procession, from the Convent of St James, seat of the Armenian Patriarchate, to the Armenian cemetery.
The presence of the foreign host gave tangible, vociferous recognition of the ineradicable place Armenians continue to occupy in Jerusalem: despite the relentless attrition wars and catastrophes have precipitated in their numbers over the years, Armenians still prefer Jerusalem over their chief joy.
Ask any Armenian, if he or she could remold his destiny "to the heart’s desire," (in Omar Khayyam’s words), where would they like their home to be, and the reply will be unequivocally divided between Yerevan, capital of the Armenian homeland, and Yerusaghem (the Armenian name for Jerusalem).
Pulitzer prize winning novelist William Saroyan said it best: when any two Armenians meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia.
The unmistakable attendance of a special envoy from the Lebanon-based Armenian Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia, historic rivals of the mother church in Armenia with which Jerusalem is aligned, gave vivid proof of this unshakable bond of fraternity and solidarity.
And to demonstrate his affinity with the Armenian church (as well as his own personal regard for Manoogian), former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah emerged out of self-imposed retirement, to join the funeral procession.
During the past 50 years or so, the Armenians of Jerusalem have had to bury two patriarchs: Guregh Israelian, in 1949, just after the first Arab-Israel war and Israel's proclamation of independence, and Yeghishe Derderian, in 1990.
Derderian had been elected locum tenens ("caretaker") following Israelian's death, and had adhered to that position tenuously for decades before finally succumbing to demands for an election that traditionally should take place after the expiration of a 40-day mourning period.
Church sources doubt this will happen again: within days of the death of Manoogian, the brotherhood of Armenian priests in Jerusalem met in general assembly to elect a new locum tenens, giving the nod to Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, director of the Patriarchate's ecumenical and foreign relations.
It will be his job, among his other caretaker responsibilities, to pave the way for the election of Jerusalem's 97th Armenian patriarch.
In one of the highlights of Manoogian's funeral mass, celebrated in the ornate Cathedral of St James, Shirvanian bent to bless Manoogian's body, dipping his finger in a receptacle holding the holy chrism, and anointing the late patriarch's forehead and right hand.
The gesture is a tacit affirmation of the link of patriarchal succession and points to the symbolic importance of the right hand of an Armenian priest (this is the hand he uses to bless the congregation and offer communion) as evidenced by the fact that relics of Armenian saints are usually housed in golden moulds or replicas of the right hand.
Before coming to Jerusalem, Manoogian had held, reportedly to popular acclaim, the highly prestigious position of Primate of the Eastern Diocese of America, a mandate that gave him spiritual jurisdiction over tens of thousands of Armenians living on America's east coast. But he gave all that up to go and act as shepherd to a mere handful, in the city of Christ.
And Jerusalem turned out to be one mammoth challenge, a fact acknowledged by the Armenian church, as conceded by the late Catholicos of All Armenians, Vazken I, who said of Manoogian: “We see that his task is difficult: a heavy responsibility weighs upon his shoulders. “
Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Manoogian’s successor as Primate, echoed the same sentiments in a eulogy: “He was one of the very few churchmen of his generation to carry the weight of our church on his shoulders. He stood out . . . and seemed to combine all the grace and dignity of the Armenian past, with all our fondest hopes and aspirations for the future. “
Like Manoogian, Barsamian is a member of the priestly Brotherhood of St James, and his name has cropped up as a potential candidate to replace succeed, a prospect he shares with half a dozen others, each no less impressive in his credentials.
Among the front-runners of the eligible candidates among the Brotherhood, two stand out: Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, the locum tenens, and Archbishop Nourhan Manoogian, the Patriarchal Vicar. The former primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Australia and New Zealand, Archbishop Aghan Baliozian, who died recently, had also been among the undeclared runners.
The Armenians of Jerusalem know that it is not going to be easy to replace Manoogian, the reformer.
"Manoogian was a visionary, an idealist, and despite his foibles, he was able to inspire and consolidate the local Armenian community which had been wrung out to dry during the previous administration," as an observer remarked.
"Under his tutelage, division lines blurred, and people began to feel once more a strong sense of unity, of belonging," he added. "Repercussions of the unhappy, traumatic age of Manoogian's predecessor lost their poignancy. Here was a man who could deliver, who cared for his flock, and showed it."
Manoogian, who was born in the desert town of Baqouba in Iraq, will best be remembered for his bold initiatives to restore faith in the Jerusalem church and its leaders, and re-establish the sense of order and stability the community had been denied during his predecessor's tumultuous reign.
At the same time, his keen interest in ecumenical affairs ensured the forging of sound brotherly ties with the other Christian churches of the Holy Land.
But he also used his skills, honed during his US stint, to promulgate firm diplomatic and political relations with local or regional governments.
Jerusalem's legendary mayor, the late Teddy Kollek, held Manoogian in high esteem and would call on him from time to time.
And as Manoogian's secretary and press officer, I accompanied him on a visit to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Gaza. As Arafat dwelt at length on the problems and tribulations facing him in the Strip, Manoogian would nod in understanding.
As we were about to leave, Arafat pulled me aside and whispered: "He is a good man. Deeru balkom 'aleh (take good care of him)."
Manoogian will be mourned long and lovingly, for behind the sorrow at his loss there is joy and pride that this reformer was able, despite all his foibles, to set the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the second most important spiritual fount for all Armenians, back on a solidly sound and secure course.
An old widow, who had cause to remember Manoogian's beneficence, summed it up with the traditional Armenian wish for the departed: "May the earth lie gently and lightly on your tomb."
Pix: Courtesy Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem