Home Religion Religions and Migrations in the Black Sea Region
(a)The ideological-political diversity
The first Armenians of Thessaloniki are the second- and third-generation descendants of refugees that were violently expelled from the former Ottoman Empire. After many ideological and political internal confrontations and orientations, they gradually acquired political and ideological cohesion in the 1960s and 1970s. This cohesion in a strange way is, on the one hand, based on the strengthening of their Armenian identity and, on the other hand, the result of their integration into the Greek society. The first Armenians are Greek citizens, as they were naturalised in the 1960s. They speak Greek as their native language and enjoy full Greek citizenship rights. They themselves have a sense of belonging to the Greek society and define themselves as Greek-Armenians. In this way, they recognise the fact that they are entirely integrated into the Greek society, constituting an integral part of it.
However, the integration of the old Armenians does not equal assimilation, since they feel that they form a distinct group within the Greek society. This feeling is reinforced by a variety of mechanisms and activities, as mentioned above. The distinct identity of Armenians has both an ethnic, as well as a religious dimension, although Armenians define themselves as Orthodox Christians. They maintain their great faith in the Armenian Apostolic Church and feel proud of the fact that Armenia was, according to tradition, the first Christian nation in history. They conserve with zeal their particular Armenian names and their special traditions, like the traditional preparation of Mas and Mantag, or the ceremony of the blessing of grapes in the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on August 15. The language of worship is Grabar, the classical Armenian language, despite the fact that some hymns have been translated into Greek. In public community events (religious, political, cultural) participants use the Armenian language, although the Armenians of the city are mostly Greek-speaking.
Particular emphasis is of course attributed to the celebration of April 24, the Remembrance Day for the Genocide of the Armenians by the Turks. The celebration starts with a religious ceremony (a memorial service to honour the victims) and ends with a political event—a request for the liberation of Armenia. All these activities constitute a framework for strengthening and reproducing Armenianness that simultaneously reduces the risk of assimilation of the Armenians by the Greek context.
The Armenianness of local Armenians, from the moment they settled in Greece, expatriated by the Turks as exiles or refugees, has a political dimension (Gellner 1983). The “lost homeland” becomes an idealised image in their eyes or as William Safran puts it, it acquires the sense of an “eschatological concept”, something similar to the expected Second Coming (Safran 1991, 94). “Jerusalem”, the symbol of any lost homeland, is not only a place but also an idea, which, nevertheless, has a real meaning for any diasporic peoples (Schnapper and Davis 1999).
The relatively recent establishment of the Republic of Armenia, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991), has created a visible national centre, which does not fully meet the political aspirations of the old Armenians of diaspora. In their eyes, the new independent Armenia can only be seen as a crippled national centre; the contemporary Armenian state is only a part of the idealised Armenia. Therefore, the myth of the “lost homeland” is still maintained, as the idea of homeland “is moved” towards the Turkish Armenia (Antoniou 1995). It should also be noted that the Armenians of Thessaloniki who are now second- or third- generation refugees have developed a hybrid identity, as they are fully integrated in the Greek society and are not actually interested in returning to the homeland.
In contrast to the earlier group of Armenian migrants, the new immigrants have left their homeland, Armenia of the 1990s, frustrated by difficult circumstances or pressed by urgent needs. They have come to Greece voluntarily, seeking a better life. The real Armenia, the homeland that they themselves have experienced and decided to leave behind, has nothing to do with the idealised image of the homeland that the Greek-Armenians conserve. The new immigrants think that probably their homeland, in its own way, pushed them away in order for them to survive. Their perception of Armenianness has a different content from that of the Greek- Armenians’ (Antoniou 1995; Varjabedian 2004), as they grew up without references to the symbols of Armenianness that shaped the sense of identity of the Greek-Armenians. The more recent wave of Armenian immigrants were shaped by an absence of the church in their social and national life, an ignorance of the national events such as the genocide and the enforced refugee state that shaped the diaspora. The new Armenian nationalism is mostly related to the resistance against the Soviet power and not to the liberation claims from Turkey. It has a more secular rather than religious basis.
The newly arrived immigrants in Thessaloniki come into contact with their compatriots, who have been fully integrated into the Greek society but, at the same time, maintain their Armenianness. Initially, they turn to the local Armenian community for support, aid and solidarity. Many of them are still seeking their old traditional identity, which the Soviet Union had “deprived” them of, according to their perception. For this reason, many of them seek to be baptised, and to baptise their children in the Armenian Church, thus offering themselves and their family a better opportunity to integrate into the Armenian community.
However, these new immigrants settle—most times—permanently in Greece, create families and are more interested in the integration into the Greek society. Their aim is their survival in the future and not the revival of the past. Having the will to be integrated into the Greek society, the new immigrants follow some tactics of adaptation which are unthinkable for the old Armenians. For instance, they easily accept the hellenisa- tion of their names, a practice that many immigrants adopt in Greece. The reason behind this is not their wish to hide their real identity; they just express their will to acquire some elements of the dominant culture (Emke-Poulopoulos 2007). They wish that their children conserve the Armenian language, but they often find it difficult to attend the courses in the Armenian school due to various adverse conditions. Moreover, a part of these people, especially those who are related with the Armenians of Greek origin, prefers to be incorporated in the broader group of Greeks/ repatriates of the former Soviet Union, because in this way they acquire, among other things, the political and social benefits provided to expatriates by the Greek state (Hassiotis 2005).
Therefore, whereas the old Armenian diaspora focuses on Armenianness and its symbols, such as religion, language, historical memory, the new immigrants focus on the need for survival in the Greek society. The former focus on the conservation of a distinct Armenian identity, while the latter on the compliance with the Greek context. The former focus on the past, while the latter on the future.
It seems that for the newly arrived immigrants, integration into Greek society (finding a job, a house, education for children, etc.) is of high priority and as such, it acquires greater importance than the conservation of national origin, which in any case is not threatened by anyone. In a nutshell, for the Armenian diaspora, of utmost importance is the ethnic survival represented by the community, whereas for the new Armenian immigrants of utmost importance is their individual survival.
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