22 April 2005

Lebanon's Armenians: Well-integrated but declining

Nayla Razzouk from Beirut, wrote on 21 April 2004 the following article in
the "Middle East Online" (http://www.middle-east-online.com/), a website
dealing with Arab affairs.

Armenians whose ancestors escaped massacre in Ottoman Turkey gain Lebanon’s
respect with their skills, hard work.

Lebanon's well-integrated Armenian community is gearing up for the 90th
anniversary of the massacre of their ancestors in Ottoman Turkey amid
concerns over emigration which has halved their number in 15 years.

The Christian Armenians have been hit by the same economic hardships as
other communities in the tiny Arab country which welcomed their forefathers
with open arms.

From 250,000 at the end of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, during which tens
of thousands emigrated, the Armenian community has dwindled further to about
120,000, according to political and religious leaders of the community.

"We suffered emigration like all other communities in post-war Lebanon. We
are trying to face that problem, and so are our churches, with financial and
housing aid," said MP Jean Ogassabian, one of six ethnic Armenian deputies
in the 128-member parliament.

"But since Armenia's independence in 1991, many of the funds that we used to
receive are now going" to the former Soviet republic, said another, MP Serge
Tor Sarkissian.

Lebanon hosts the Arab world's largest Armenian community, the descendants
of survivors of the 1915-1917 massacres of Armenians who are now leading a
global campaign to declare the mass killings a genocide.

The massacres have been acknowledged as genocide by a number of countries,
including France, Canada and Switzerland. Armenians around the world will
mark the 90th anniversary of the start of the slaughter on April 24.

"A draft law proposal for official Lebanese recognition of the genocide has
been in my drawer for two years because Lebanon does not need more crises.
We are Lebanese first, and we are forever grateful to Lebanon," said Tor

Most of Lebanon's Armenians hail from the region of Cilicia, today in
Turkey, and not in the present-day state of Armenia.

From refugees living under tents on wastelands, the Armenians gained the
respect of other communities in Lebanon with their skills and hard work that
allowed them to gain prominent economic and political positions.

The community is today represented by a government minister, six MPs and
three main political parties. The mother and wife of President Emile Lahoud
are of Armenian origin.

Many of Lebanon's top jewellers, leading industrialists, prominent
physicians, popular television presenters, artists and at least half of the
musicians of the national symphony orchestra are Armenians.

If many Lebanese are known to speak Arabic, French and English, some
Lebanese Armenians are even quadrilingual.

At election time, the Armenian vote is an important factor since many of
them are registered in Beirut and important regions nearby. They have
however often been criticised for voting in block, in favor of the
government of the day.

The Armenians maintained a neutral stand during the war.

"The Armenians mind their own business to the point that they even celebrate
Christmas on their own," on January 6, said Wassim Husseini in a joke
summing up how Armenians are generally viewed.

But such stereotypes belong more to the past, said Arda Ekmekji, dean of
arts and sciences at Haigazian University, the only Armenian higher learning
institute outside Armenia.

"Today, Lebanese Armenians are completely integrated, they live across the
country and speak perfect Arabic," she said. "When two Lebanese meet in
Paris, they naturally speak Arabic!"

Beside the input of the family, Armenian identity is kept alive by active
political, cultural and sporting institutions as well as some 70 Armenian
schools and the university.

And there is the commemoration of April 24.

Near Saint Gregory the Illuminator Armenian church north of Beirut, children
file in groups into a mausoleum to watch in silence a display of skulls from
the massacre.

In the all-Armenian village of Anjar, in eastern Lebanon, residents live
amid apple orchards, vineyards and Islamic ruins in six quarters named after
the six villages of mountainous Musa Dagh, in today's Turkey.

Armenians from around the world trek to Anjar to pray at the memorial of the
heroic and poorly-armed Armenian villagers in Musa Dagh who, faced with
almost certain death, fought for 40 days against invading Turks in 1915.

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