By Emil SANAMYAN
The Armenian Reporter, Editor-in-chief
Many if not most of Armenia’s present and future problems can be traced to the modest size of the country’s population. Armenia’s demographics are central to such significant factors as the country’s attractiveness to foreign investors, budget revenue and military capacity.
Although levels of emigration from Armenia have stabilized in the last decade if compared to the massive outflow of the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, the established Armenian communities – particularly in Russia and the West – will continue to serve as magnets more immigrants from Armenia.
Until now, Armenia has looked primarily to Armenians abroad as the pool for potential repatriation to Armenia. But with perhaps seven million Armenians living outside Armenia, including many who are thoroughly assimilated, only a tiny fraction can be expected to seriously consider resettlement in Armenia and this could hardly provide for significant demographic impact.
While this may seem far-fetched or unthinkable to most Armenians today, it is increasingly clear that only by reaching out to potential non-Armenian immigrants can Armenia secure long-term population growth.
Among the typically Armenian points of pride frequently repeated to others and to themselves is that Armenia was the first state to embrace Christianity. But beyond that point – being the first – this historical development seems to bear little impact on Armenia today, beyond the large church infrastructure dotting Armenian landscapes in the homeland and diaspora.
Specifically, there appears to be very little outreach from Armenians to other Christian groups in the Middle East. While some concern for the state of the dwindling Armenian communities has been articulated, very little solidarity has been observed for the fellow non-Armenian Christian communities that have also been coming under immense pressures in recent years to emigrate from their increasingly volatile ancestral homelands.
Following U.S. invasion of Iraq its Christian population had decreased from about 800,000 to 400,000, most of these Christians – with perhaps ten thousand Armenians among them – fled to Jordan, Syria or the West.
Some 2.2 million Christians in Syria (including about 80,000 Armenians) may become the next Middle Eastern population to emigrate en masse as violence in that country continues. According to media reports, flight of Syrian Christians has already begun, primarily to Lebanon.
In Lebanon itself, where Christians previously constituted a majority, their share of the population has now declined to under 40 percent or about 1.5 million people (including about 150,000 Armenians) and that trend is likely to continue.
Over the last decade, Jordan was probably the only Middle Eastern country where the number of Christians has increased– primarily because of the refugee inflow from Iraq – and now amounts to about half a million people, including perhaps 5,000 Armenians.
Armenians are currently the largest of the remaining Christian communities in Iran and Turkey, but there are also non-Armenian Christian communities there numbering into tens of thousands.
The most populous Christian communities are to be found in the North African portion of the Middle East. The Copts – the Egyptian Christians – number at least six million and the Coptic Church estimates as many as 11 million. And Christians make up half of Ethiopia’s population, numbering over 40 million people, and in Eritrea – a further 3 million or so.
The Armenian, Coptic, Eritrean, Ethiopian and Syriac churches are connected theologically and are normally grouped together as the Oriental Christian churches that are part of neither the Eastern Orthodox nor the Western Christianity.
However, this grouping reflects more the Orientals’ separateness from other churches than unity among themselves. In the case of the Armenian church, The Holy Etchmiadzin has more actively engaged with the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican than the sister churches of the Middle East. To add more complexity, most Middle East Christians outside North Africa – in Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, are either Catholic or Orthodox.
To date there is no common platform that would bring together the more than 10 million Middle East Christians of all the denominations (beyond Ethiopia and Eritrea) who clearly share greater cultural similarities with one another. Many of these groups have long-lasting historic rivalries, but it is not unrealistic to expect thatthese can be put aside whereas these groups increasingly face similar perils fueled by the rising instability and anti-Christian attacks.
In the present critical circumstances, Armenia could be an ideal location for a regional assembly of Middle East Christians that would discuss their common problems, and do so safely.
Both Ethiopians and Assyrians of northern Iraq (historic Adiabene) may compete with Armenians for the bragging rights of the first Christian state, but Armenia is clearly the most Christian of the regional states today, while also being the smallest in population.
The Ireland example
The population of Ireland has still not recovered from the great famine of the mid-19th century. By 1900s, owing to the deaths and large-scale emigration, the Republic of Ireland’s population was 3 million people, less than half what it was fifty years earlier. And 3 million is what the population remained through the 1980s, thanks to continued emigration to North America.
Today only about five percent of the world’s Irish live within the Republic of Ireland. But Ireland today is coping with another sort of a challenge: immigration from new European Union member states and countries from outside the EU.
Only a small minority of the Irish abroad has repatriated to their ancestral homeland, but this new type of immigration is helping stem the past demographic loses.
Re-branding and populating Armenia
As a nation that has suffered from extreme persecution, Armenians must recognize a moral imperative in extending a helping hand to other groups now facing not too dissimilar dangers.
This outreach could initially involve a gathering format such as a regional assembly and soonArmeniashould also consider a policy that would offer favorable immigration rights to select groups, including Middle East Christians and some other Armenia-connected groups such as Yezidi Kurds.
Certainly, it is unlikely that any of these groups would resettle in Armenia en masse in the near future, but Armenia’s demographic prospects would benefit even if a small fraction of Middle East Christians – who number more than all Armenians worldwide– ends up in Armenia
Of course, this would require a fundamental rethinking of the purpose of the Armenian state, which so far has served as the gathering place and protector of mostly (if not exclusively) ethnic Armenians.
But as far as cases of re-imagining one’s purpose go, Armenia as a safe haven for Christians – whose lives are endangered in the Middle East and cultures facing assimilation in the West – would perhaps be a sort of shift more or less acceptable to largely conservative Armenian public.