Church in hot water over Jerusalem land sales

Palestinian Greek Orthodox Christians in Bethlehem protest the visit of the patriarch Theophilos for the church’s sale of land to Israel, 6 January 2010. (Haytham Othman/MaanImages)


RAMALLAH, occupied West Bank (IPS) - Israel’s bid to keep occupied East Jerusalem under its sovereignty and prevent its incorporation into a future Palestinian state has been boosted over the years with the acquiescence of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The church’s sale of politically sensitive land in East Jerusalem under dubious circumstances and amidst charges of political blackmail have caused outrage amongst Greek Orthodox Palestinians and threatened to split the church.

In a bid to prevent Jerusalem’s division, Israel has accelerated its Judaization of East Jerusalem which, under international law, is part of the occupied Palestinian West Bank and which Palestinians wish to see become the capital of their future state.

Palestinians have been expelled from their homes to make way for Jewish settlers whose settlement there has been politically and economically encouraged by Israel.

Apart from social restrictions Palestinians are regularly denied building permits and those who build anyway, due to chronic housing shortages, face destruction of their homes by Jerusalem municipality.

The crisis within the Palestinian Greek Orthodox Church came to a head on Wednesday, the Orthodox Christmas Eve, when the patriarch of the church, Theophilos, had to be escorted into Bethlehem’s Manger Square by Palestinian riot police to attend celebrations.

Several hundred Palestinian protestors from the Council of Arab Orthodox Institutions and Organizations in Palestine, representing 19 groups, booed his arrival and waved placards that read: “The Holy Land is not for Sale or Lease.”

A private car belonging to Theophilos’ entourage blared out Christmas music to try and drown out the protestors. Earlier, bands had welcomed the arrival of the Coptic Christian and the Syrian Patriarchs with band music but packed up and left in protest at Theophilos’ arrival.

Elias Isaid, leader of the Greek Orthodox Club of Beit Sahour, stated: “Today’s demonstration is the start of our action against the patriarch.” He warned that the patriarch could be declared persona non grata in Bethlehem if legitimate grievances were not taken into consideration.

The Greek Orthodox Church is the biggest private owner of land in Jerusalem and owns most of the land in the West Bank on which the Christian religious sites, including the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem where Christians believe Jesus was born, are built.

Much of this land was donated to it by Orthodox Christian Palestinians in the late 1800s. Over the last few decades the church has increased land sales to the Israeli authorities or leased land to them for a period of 999 years.

This has enabled Israel to build a number of large Israeli settlements in the East Jerusalem area, creating a corridor with other West Bank settlements and effectively cutting off East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.

But the church’s land sales have come against a background of corruption allegations. Nicholas Papadimas, a previous church treasurer in Jerusalem, was behind some of the sales before he fled the country and was charged in Greece with stealing church funds in a separate case.

Theophilos, on being appointed the patriarch in 2005, replacing his discredited predecessor Patriarch Ireneos, had promised to stop selling Palestinian land.

Ireneos was accused of being behind secret land deals with two international Jewish investor groups. An Israeli court ruled that his 2001 election was illegal as it was helped by a convicted drug trafficker who discredited his rivals by using homoerotic pictures.

But Israeli authorities have used the church’s corruption and financial difficulties to their political advantage and applied additional political pressure to ensure that the choice of patriarchs is beneficial to Israel’s land acquisition policies.

According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, several years ago when Theophilos was awaiting Israeli recognition the state demanded that the Greek Orthodox patriarchy conduct a census of all church property in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), and give Israel the first right of refusal on property up for sale or lease.

Israel also demanded that some properties in the area of Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate “remain in the hands of the Israeli lessees.” Theophilos’ lawyers were told Israel’s recognition of the patriarch was dependent on those clauses being met.

One of the church’s Jerusalem properties was purchased with the involvement of the Ateret Cohanim association which is dedicated to buying Arab property in Jerusalem and settling Jews there.

But controversy surrounds the Ateret Cohanim organization. Friends of Ateret Cohanim, which is registered in the US as an educational entity, sends millions of dollars of tax-free donations to Israel every year for political purposes, particularly buying Palestinian property in East Jerusalem.

Nearly 60 percent of Ateret Cohanim’s money, raised in the US, goes into buying Palestinian land and property in the OPT.

American tax law bans tax-exempt organizations from any involvement in politics or the promotion of political ideas.

Ateret Cohanim’s political agenda was not lost on Israel’s Peace Now (PN) organization. Last year, PN organized a protest against a tour of Jerusalem by pro-Israeli Republican candidate Mike Huckabee which was sponsored by Ateret Cohanim.

Huckabee’s reception party was held at the al-Quds Shepherd Hotel which was expropriated from its Palestinian residents to build new housing units for Jewish settlers. The US State Department demanded that Ateret Cohanim cease its plans to build apartments on the site.

“We believe that these moves will only breed more anger and distrust among Arabs in the capital, and we see these attempts as nothing more than a provocation meant to undermine the possibility of a future peace agreement in the capital.”

All rights reserved, IPS — Inter Press Service (2010). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.