Religion, Diaspora and New Migration

The research carried out in the Armenian community of Thessaloniki led to the following conclusions:

  • (a) There is a complex, multi-dimensional diversity within the Armenian community of Thessaloniki, which is due not only to the variety of structures and organisations (religious, educational, political, cultural), but also to the differences of its members (historical origin, ideological-political orientation, linguistic and socio?economic status). Although the multiple fragmentation that characterises the institutions of the Armenian communities is faced as quite a normal phenomenon, according to existing research (Antoniou 1995) the differences in the composition of the population seem to be a fundamental issue concerning the unity and coherence of the community.
  • (b) Despite the heterogeneity of the two groups, the first wave and the newly arrived Armenians, the unity of community is safeguarded and its cohesion is conserved. The arrival of new immigrants, despite their different origin, does not give rise to obvious dividing tendencies, and the establishment of new communal institutions and organisations has been so far avoided. The community itself seems to withstand the pressure of individual differentiations and conserves its unity, keeping as a dominant identity narrative that of the diaspora. It is too early to answer the question whether the existence of two distinct groups will attribute a new identity to the Armenian community of Thessaloniki. While the majority of immigrants do not participate in the life of community, this is a tendency that is being overcome by the second-generation immigrants. On the one hand, they seem to have tackled many of the difficulties of adaptation to the Greek society that the first generation—their parents—had faced. Second-generation immigrants have been born and/or raised in Greece, have attended Greek school, and thus feel that they belong to the Greek society (Gotovos and Markou 2004; Bezevegis and Paulopoulos 2008). On the other hand, they take part in many community activities. For example, they attend the Armenian School on Saturdays, participate in athletic and cultural events, and spend their holidays in the Armenian camp. This is encouraging for the future of the community, since research on other migrational groups with longer history has shown that the second generations often redefine their identity and reconnect to their traditional roots, unlike their parents who are more interested in their economic survival and adaptation in the host country.
  • (c) It seems that an important role regarding community cohesion is played by the diachronic presence of the Armenian Church, which remains a powerful symbol of unity, both for the old and newly arrived Armenians, although in a different way and probably for different reasons for each of the two groups. For the first-wave Armenian immigrants, the church safeguards the standards of their traditional collective identity, their Armenianness, whereas for the newly arrived Armenians it redefines their new identity which includes the adaptation to the new country. Despite the fact that for most Armenians the church offers the sense of belonging but not that of believing (symbolic inclusion but not active participation), community members recognise the Church as the strong bond that unites the nation and reproduces the common collective heritage (Robia 2009). That is because almost without exception the Armenians are Christians, although often in a sociological rather than religious sense (McCollum 2004). The Armenian Church served as the chief institution for bringing together all Armenians, beyond their diversities and dissensions, thus maintaining their collective identity around a common institution (Schnapper and Davis 1999).

The identification of the Church with the Armenian community is so strong that the former, both for its own members as well as for the rest of Thessaloniki’s citizens, is by association called the Armenian Church. It is through the church that the distinctiveness of the Armenian national identity is conserved, although outside the community and within the Greek society this may be less distinct, or even disappear completely. It is certain that the position of the Church in the function of the Armenian community has more of a symbolic meaning rather than a real one. As it is claimed, the modern conditions of secularisation and individualisation have resulted in the development of the “symbolic nature” of religion (Gans 1994). Many times people use the symbols and language of powerful collective entities, such as religion or nation, in order to face the disruptive social forces and in order to conserve the coherence of their culture and their community. This is particularly obvious in the case of diasporic or migrational groups.

The “symbolic religiosity” (and ethnicity) uses the relevant symbols with a view to maintaining identity, without formal participation in the religious or ethnic institutions, something that is eventually becoming less and less necessary (Paul 2000). This does not mean that the symbolic meaning of institutions, such as religion, loses its true power in the consciousness and life of people. The signification of the symbol is equally effective, since it gives meaning and coherence to the identity of a group (Papageorgiou 2005).

To conclude, it should be noted that this research is a first attempt to record, analyse and understand the multiple diversity within the Armenian community of Thessaloniki; a community that consists of old refugees who left the Black Sea at the beginning of the twentieth century, as well as new immigrants who arrived towards the end of the same century. The future will show whether this diversity will become weaker, and whether the community will be able to maintain its unity through the contribution of powerful symbolic references, such as the Church. But, this of course also pertains to the identity of the Church itself: will it remain a national Church in the service of the Armenian Nation or will it function as the “sacred canopy”, a common world view, which covers the life and aspirations of all Armenians?

Acknowledgements I am particularly grateful to Mr Garo Nadian (member of the Church Committee of the Armenian community), Ms Gioula Kassapian (headmistress of the Armenian school) and Mr Chovik Kassapian (student at the School of Fine Arts at the Armenian University of Yerevan), who willingly talked about their community and helped me understand its structure and function. I would also like to thank Ms Malvina Sarian, who helped me to make my first contacts with the Armenian community as well as my dear friend Ms Evangelia Liliou, who has significantly contributed to the realisation of this research with her knowledge and ideas.

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