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Arab-Armenian relations: An enduring friendship in a tense neighbourhood

By Sharif Hikmat Nashashibi
Arab Media Watch Chairman

With sectarian tensions in Iraq and other regional countries, there is a success story that has been overlooked, and which should serve as a model of communal harmony and co-existence.

Good relations between Arabs and Armenians go back centuries, despite being of different ethnicity and faith - the Arabs were the first people to adopt Islam, and Armenia was the first country to officially adopt Christianity, in 301 AD - and despite regional politics that have at times sought to drive a wedge between the two peoples.

There are commonalities in terms of culture, music, arts and traditions. For example, the famous Matenadaran (the depository of ancient Armenian manuscripts) contains no less than 700 in Arabic, as well as a translation of the Quran. However, Armenians are perhaps most easily distinguishable by their surnames, which end in 'ian'.

Undoubtedly, the most pivotal event in their relationship is the Ottoman massacres of up to 1.5 million Armenians from 1915-23, which Turkey to this day refuses to recognise. To put the scale of the slaughter into perspective, the population of Armenia - which borders Georgia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, Iran to the south and Turkey to the west - today stands at just 3 million.

The Arab world, despite being predominantly Muslim like the Turks, gave Armenians safe haven, resulting in Armenian communities in most Arab countries - particularly Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria - that today number in the hundreds of thousands. This may be due to the fact that Arabs had common cause with Armenians in opposing centuries of Ottoman rule, and paying a heavy price for such resistance.

However Vartan Melkonian, whose childhood was spent in a predominantly Armenian orphanage in Lebanon, tells me that it is down to the "very strong Arab culture of hospitality and welcoming."

Through the Melkonian Foundation, founded in 1982, the Lebanese-Armenian orchestra conductor - who lives in the UK but calls Lebanon his home - has raised awareness and money for Arab and Armenian children and orphans in need.

"Armenians not only survived in Arab countries, but they were given the opportunity to rise and become full citizens in their new homes, while preserving their national identity," said Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian after signing a Memorandum of Mutual Understanding with the Arab League in January 2005. "Grateful Armenians will never forget the humane approach of the Arab people."

This was reciprocated when, for instance, Armenia acted as a refuge during the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.

In turn, "much of our support, when Armenia, after its independence [from the Soviet Union in 1991], was in pretty bad shape, has come from the Arabs…despite the fact that [they] had their own problems," says Richard Hrair Dekmejian, professor of political science at the University of Southern California, adding that "some Armenians have assumed the role of Arab nationalists."

The presence of large and successful Armenian communities in the Arab world "plays a very positive role in advancing and developing our…good relations with all Arab countries," says Oskanian, adding that this has influenced his government's foreign policies.

"Since gaining independence, the Republic of Armenia has been committed to improving relations with Arab states. We've achieved tangible successes," he says. "We've signed a number of bilateral documents in various fields, created intergovernmental commissions, have frequent exchange visits, established working ties at all levels, and conduct mutual cultural events."

A recent example is the official visit to Armenia of Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, a member of the United Arab Emirates' Supreme Council and ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah, during which he inaugurated the Sharjah Cultural Week (19-22 September 2005).

He was given by Armenian President Robert Kocharian the Saint Mesrob Mashtots Order, one of the highest in Armenia. Al Qasimi also planted a tree of Arab friendship at Genocide Monument in the capital Yerevan.

There is lucrative business between Arab Gulf states and Armenia, which also recently signed economic protocols with Egypt (the first Arab country to open a full-scale embassy in Yerevan), and whose communities in the Arab world have done well economically, better than their compatriots back home.

This, as well as their thorough integration in Arab societies, is perhaps why there has not been large-scale emigration to Armenia after its independence.

There is also alignment politically. On Iraq, "it's our desire to see…a sovereign, united, stable and democratic state," says Oskanian. And in the Middle East peace process, Armenia has "always expressed its solidarity with the Arab position. The establishment of an independent Palestinian state is at the core of the process of establishing regional security and stability."

It is apt, then, that the new Palestinian ambassador to the UK is an Armenian married to an Arab. "When I was appointed ambassador, the Armenian community [in Jerusalem] threw a farewell party for me. They were so proud," Manuel Hassassian, whose father escaped the Turkish massacre, tells me.

"This is a reflection to what extent we're one and the same. I can strike a lot of parallels between Armenia and Palestine at all levels. To maintain our presence until now, despite wars, occupation, 70 years of communism, and to get an independent Armenia, brings hope that one day Palestinians will get their independence."

Armenian support for this goal has not been simply political. The Palestine Liberation Organisation trained Armenian fighters in the 1960s and 1970s, according to Hassassian.

Arab-Armenian relations have weathered regional storms. For instance, Armenians in Lebanon did not get involved in the civil war there. Also, efforts by Azerbaijan and Turkey to garner Arab support in the Azeri-Armenian war and dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, by portraying it as a Muslim-Christian conflict, have failed.

Arab-Armenian relations have been solidified by what Dekmejian describes as a growing Israeli-Turkish-Azeri "axis." Incidentally, Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel, the year after its establishment in 1948, and Azerbaijan hosted far-right Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September 1997.

"Pro-Israeli lobbies…have been agitating, working in Washington with the Turkish lobbies against Armenia's interests,” says Dekmejian.

When asked whether he relates more to his Armenian or Arab side, Hassassian responds: "I asked one of my university students, who was from Kuwait but originally Palestinian, for whom he would cheer if the Palestinian national football team played against Kuwait. He said he would cheer for the best player."

My mother's aunt Lily Nicolian - a Syrian Armenian whose grandfather negotiated with the French and British ambassadors in Lebanon to save hundreds from Ottoman attack, and encouraged families to take them in - sees no distinction. "We're close friends, like one family." Sometimes, quite literally.
Source: "Arab Media Watch", 05 October 2006

Added: Saturday, October 04, 2008
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