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The Organisation of Religious and Communal Life

The Armenian community of Greece is recognised by the Greek state as a religious minority since its official leader is the Archbishop of the Armenians in Greece, based in Athens. The Archdiocese of the Armenians in Greece constitutes the thema of Greece, according to the ecclesiastic terminology,2 and belongs to the Patriarchate of Cilicia, which is located in Adilias, a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. However, it also maintains spiritual ties with the Patriarchate of Etsmiatzin, especially after the declaration of independence of the Republic of Armenia from the Soviet Union (1991). The organisation of the Armenian community in Thessaloniki revolves around its ecclesiastical institution, that is, the Armenian Apostolic Church, which officially belongs to the Armenian Archdiocese of Athens. From the community’s first establishment in the city, when Thessaloniki was still under Ottoman rule in the nineteenth century, the life of its members has been structured around the Armenian Apostolic Church, which represents the religious affiliation of the vast majority of Armenian people.3

The formal institutional establishment of the community started in the 1880s with the appointment of the first priests by the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, to which the community of Thessaloniki belonged at that time. Since then, there has been a systematic recording of christenings, weddings and deaths, as community records have been elaborately kept noting permanent and regular members. The search for a permanent place of worship and the development of communal life around it is usually the first priority of the Armenians of diaspora who seek a re-establishment of their “lost homeland” (Kirkland 1981; Miller and Miller 1991; Bakalian 1993; Pattie 1994, 1999; Vertovec 2000).

As already mentioned, the Armenian Apostolic Church is closely related to the national identity of Armenians, functioning not only as a field of expression and conservation of religious faith, but also as a field of shaping national consciousness, developing communal life and fostering cultural identity. After several temporary solutions, the community acquired a permanent church in 1903, which was erected in honour of the Virgin Mary on private land, following the approval of the Sultan Abdul Hamid II and with the financial assistance of community members (Hassiotis 2005). The church is situated in the centre of Thessaloniki and constitutes to date the fixed point of reference for the Armenians of the city.

The community administration is practised by the Church Committee or the Church Council of the Orthodox Armenian Church of Thessaloniki (Tagaganouktioun or Tagan), which consists of nine lay members, men and women, and is headed by the priest of the church. The Council is appointed by the nine-membered committee of the Panhellenic Central Council of Orthodox Armenians, or else the National Council. The latter is elected every six years nationwide by the national assembly that consists of both members of clergy and lay people and is chaired by the Armenian Archbishop of Athens. This assembly is constituted by the representatives of the Armenian communities in Greece and is formed by the direct and catholic vote of adult members, who are registered with the Church. This twofold expression of the Armenian administration, religious and secular, is due on the one hand, typically, to the Armenian National Constitution, according to which the community is administrated internally with the responsibilities of the clerical and lay representatives of communities clearly distinguished4; and on the other hand, it is due substantively to the strong connection of Church and nation, which is kept alive in the conscience of community members.

Members of the community are considered those who are registered with the Church, that is, those who have received the baptism of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Nevertheless, in reality all Armenians who are settled in Thessaloniki are eligible; that is, the “old” members, primarily the descendants of the 1919-1923 refugees, as well as the “new” members who moved from Armenia to Thessaloniki as economic migrants. The first group was granted Greek citizenship in the 1960s and they are now regarded as Greek-Armenians. In contradistinction, the new economic migrants or refugees bear the general status of newly arrived immigrants, and this entails inconveniences such as the necessity of acquiring a residence permit, work permit and so on (King et al. 2000; Naxakis and Chletsos 2001; Mousourou 2003; Bagavos and Papadopoulou, 2006; Cavounidis et al. 2008).

Apart from administration, the Church Council participates in a variety of issues concerning all parishioners-community members. For this purpose, it collaborates with a number of auxiliary committees which cover diverse needs of religious and community life. Such a committee is the Armenian Church Ladies’ Committee, which is very important for offering humanitarian work as well as maintaining the Armenian tradition. The participation of women in the development of community life and the preservation of the Armenian tradition is considered of significant importance in other communities too, such as the Armenian community of Athens (Antoniou 1995). Generally speaking, social research emphatically reveals the role of women in the conservation and reproduction of cultural and religious identity within migrant groups through various mechanisms (Ebaugh and Chafetz 1999). The Armenian Church Ladies’ Committee in Thessaloniki is in charge of keeping the church neat and tidy, sewing the vestments of parish priests and chanters, preparing traditional celebrations, such as Mantag (a meal of boiled mutton and bread blessed by the priest and eaten during the Celebration of Liturgy every November), preparing the Mas (equivalent to the Greek “holy bread”) and generally catering for many traditional events (Kassapian 2005).

Around the Church of the Virgin Mary one may find all the communal, political, cultural, educational, athletic and philanthropic institutions of the community, which offer a variety of activities. A special position among them is held by the Armenian “S. Malakian-Kasparian” school, which was also founded in the 1880s, at the same period when the community first started getting organised. The school functions as a primary school once a week (every Saturday) and offers Armenian language courses covering mainly the linguistic needs of children. At the same time, it constitutes an important centre for cultivating the ethnic consciousness of young Armenians. The student population is subject to change depending on the fluctuations of the Armenian population in the city; over recent years, the student population consists mainly of second-generation immigrants (Hassiotis 2005; Kondili 2010).

Apart from the school, however, important educational as well as recreational objectives are fulfilled by the camp that functions in Pefkochori, Halkidiki, in a private area owned by the community. The activities carried out in this camp include, among others, courses of Armenian language and history, as well as activities focused on Armenian cultural traditions. The latter are aimed at boosting solidarity among young members of the community and reinforcing their Armenianness. The character of this camp is not only communitarian but also pan-Armenian, as young Armenians are hosted there from other Armenian communities in Greece and abroad (Hassiotis 2005; Kondili 2010).

Meanwhile, a lot of political, athletic or cultural organisations function around the community—yet are administratively independent. These organisations constitute part of an international network of institutions set up by the broader Armenian diaspora. Of political character is the branch of the Armenian National Committee of Greece functioning in Thessaloniki since 1965. It is a member of the international Armenian National Committee that can be found in all major Armenian communities of diaspora. The main purpose of the Armenian National Committee is the strengthening of Armenianness and the promotion of the Armenian Question, that is, the liberation of Armenian territories. Subsequent to the acquisition of a visible national centre, that is, the Republic of Armenia which became independent in 1991, the Armenian Question is orientated towards the liberation of Turkish Armenia. It also works towards the promotion of the memory of Genocide of the Armenian people by the Turks in 1915-1916 and the establishment of April 24 as Remembrance Day for the genocide victims. The Armenian National Committee of Thessaloniki is quite active towards this direction. Through a variety of events it coordinates, it promotes awareness about the Armenian Questions among the Greek public. It also organises protest demonstrations on the anniversary of the genocide, on April 24, in the city of Thessaloniki.

Two of the oldest Armenian organisations of a humanitarian nature are Thessaloniki’s branch of the Armenian General Charity Union (founded in 1906, in Egypt) and the Armenian Cross of Mercy of Macedonia and

Thrace, which has replaced the Regional Council of the Armenian Red Cross (founded in 1923). Both organisations have been particularly active, especially over the recent years, in delivering humanitarian aid to the Republic of Armenia (food and medical supplies). The Republic of Armenia came to face a lot of needs following the earthquakes in Giumri and Spitak (1988), the war in Nagorno Karabakh, and the ensuing Turkish embargo imposed on Armenia (1992). The Armenian General Charity Union and the Armenian Cross of Mercy of Macedonia and Thrace also contributed to addressing the basic needs of refugees and economic immigrants who arrived in Thessaloniki during the 1990s.5

Another important centre that fosters the identity and solidarity of the Armenian community in Thessaloniki is the Hamazkain. This organisation has a cultural character and is the local branch of a broader network of similar bodies under the same name. These institutional bodies organise cultural events in most important Armenian diasporic centres. Since the 1970s, Hamazkain has been in charge of coordinating all the cultural events of the community which is active in all areas of art (theatre, music, visual arts etc.) The events mostly take place at the Cultural Centre of the Armenian community that was inaugurated in 1987 and named in honour of its donors, Vartan and Vartuhi Der Zakarian. The cultural centre is housed in the basement of the multi-storey building, situated next to the Church of Virgin Mary.

The particular interests of the young and adolescents are covered by two youth organisations: the Armenian Youth Association of Thessaloniki that functions as a branch of the Armenian Youth Association of Greece (member of the international Association of Young Armenians), and the Union of Armenian Athletes. The first organisation is more political in nature. It aims to raise awareness among its members, but also among the Greek public, about the Armenian Question and the recognition of the Genocide. The second organisation, the Union of Armenian Athletes, with its basketball and table tennis teams, is more focused on athletic activities, yet tends to cultural events as well (Kassapian 2005).

In this way, all communal, educational, political and cultural structures of the Armenian community in Thessaloniki function around the church, as is the case with all Armenian communities of diaspora. The church, together with the school in particular and the cultural centre, form the structural basis for the survival of the community. They constitute the framework for the reconstruction of narratives of homeland and the dia- sporic reproduction of Armenian identity (Hovanessian 1992; Antoniou

1995; Derderian-Aghajanian 2009). These institutions provide the necessary space for cultural and political interaction, which empowers refugees to survive as a collective entity, or at least to be politically represented as such within the wider Greek society.

Furthermore, these institutions serve a political function either vis-a-vis the Greek state, or towards the local Armenians, serving as a means for the conservation of Armenian identity within Greece. For this reason, they are often regarded as “governments-of-exile” (Tololyan 1991, 167). As such, the community structures enable Armenians to conserve and reproduce their ethno-cultural entity through time and history.

 
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