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Armenians Stay in Lebanon Despite War and Economic Problems

May 12, 1987

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Stateless Armenians, a forgotten minority buffeted by Lebanon’s 12-year civil war, are staying on, although caught between warring Christian and Moslem militias and victimized by a worsening economic crisis.

Some 20,000 Armenians have left Lebanon since the civil war broke out April 13, 1975, and devastated the country’s once-booming economy. But the majority have remained.

Most consider Lebanon their adopted home after their forefathers fled their native land in what is now Turkey.

Hagop Ajamian has lived in Lebanon for 40 years.

″We’ll stay here to the very end. I’m staying until we are kicked out,″ he said. ″Outside, I’m a stranger. In Lebanon, I’m a native.″

Ajamian, 55, has been running a perfume store he inherited from his father 30 years ago in Beirut’s Armenian quarter, Bourj Hammoud.

″So far, none of my family has left,″ the gray-haired storekeeper said. ″I have many relatives in Australia, Canada and America. But we stayed.″

Mehran Zaitounian joined his brother in San Diego, Calif., in 1979 as an immigrant, but returned four years later.

In a narrow alley, where laundry hangs from old balconies, Zaitounian repairs shoes in his small shop several steps below street level.

Speaking in broken Arabic, Zaitounian, 48, explained why he came back to work in the shop he inherited from his father in Bourj Hammoud.

″Here I feel among my friends in my country,″ he said.

Armenians found opportunity in Lebanon as a center of Middle East commerce before the bloodshed began and to become a political factor in Lebanon’s sectarian system.

They have six deputies in the 99-member Parliament and occasionally get a Cabinet post.

An estimated 7 million Armenians are scattered worldwide.

Some 3 million live in the Soviet Republic of Armenia, a segment of their original homeland, and a million more in other Soviet regions. The largest communities elsewhere are 600,000 in the United States, 400,000 in France and about 200,000 each in Lebanon and Iran.

Armenians claim Moslem Turks of the Ottoman Empire massacred 1.5 million of their people during a forced exodus in 1915-21. Modern-day Turkish officials dispute that number, maintaining that 300,000 Armenians were killed in the turmoil of deportations and local reprisals.

Lebanon’s 200,000 Armenians are the country’s seventh largest religious community.

The Orthodox Christian Armenians have their own churches, seminaries and schools, clubs, restaurants, and Red Cross relief. Armenians work in trade, shoemaking, leather tanning, industry and goldsmithing.

Beirut has three Armenian-language newspapers and three FM radio stations.

The Armenians have small militias to defend their areas, but have remained generally neutral in the conflict between Moslems and Lebanese Christians, who are mainly Maronites.

That has not spared them from the bloodletting or harassment by Moslem and Christian factions. About 500 of the estimated 125,000 people killed in the civil war were Armenians.

An Armenian religious leader, Catholicos Karekin II, 55, who has lived in Lebanon since his teens, said in an interview that ″the majority of the people here are determined to stay.″

The Catholicos of Cilicia, Karekin II’s formal title, is the second ranking religious authority for Armenian Orthodox followers in the world after the Catholicos of Etchmiadzin, Vasken, in Soviet Armenia.

The Bourj Hammoud district, part of the Christian heartland that runs north from the capital, is Lebanon’s largest Armenian concentration.

Others live in the northern Moslem city of Tripoli, the Christian town of Zahle and the village of Anjar in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa valley of east Lebanon.

Some had lived in Moslem west Beirut, cockpit of much of the violence, but most have fled.

″They were not encouraged to stay there,″ said the Syrian-born Catholicos, an Oxford graduate, noting that four Armenians were killed in west Beirut last year.

″Moslem extremists harassed the Armenians because they considered them to be more inclined to the Christians rather than the Moslem side.″

The Armenians have been troubled by rightist Christian militias as well.

″They weren’t very happy about the Armenians not being engaged in the war. They want the Armenians to be on their side in the fighting,″ Karekin II said.