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Jerusalem's Orthodox church accused of selling off land for 'settlement belt'

If sold, the land would connect Bethlehem-area Gilo settlement to Jerusalem, a leading Palestinian Christian grassroots group warns
Jerusalem's Patriarch Theophilos III leads Christmas midnight mass for the Greek Orthodox in Bethlehem on 7 January 2018 (AFP/File photo)
By Qassam Muaddi in Bethlehem, occupied West Bank

The Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem has sparked outrage over newly revealed plans to sell around 27 acres of church property to two Israeli companies seeking to connect a Bethlehem-area settlement to Jerusalem. 

The Orthodox Central Council in Palestine (OCCP), a Palestinian Christian grassroots group, slammed the decision during a news conference on Tuesday, which also happens to mark the Orthodox church's Christmas Eve. 

'All the bishops in the world are nationals of their own people, except in Palestine... which is why they can't see the problem in selling property to Israeli settlers' 

Alif Sabbagh, Central Orthodox Council in Israel

The OCCP said the Jerusalem patriarch - one of the nine patriarchs in the Eastern Orthodox church - is set to sell the church property to two Israeli companies which allegedly plan to use it for tourism and housing projects. 

The property in question is a dependent of the Mar Elias monastery, located on a hill overlooking Bethlehem to the south.  

"This is a new deal, dating from last September, [that] aims to complete an Israeli settlement belt, extending from the Gilo settlement near the Palestinian town of Beit Jala, all the way to Talpiot in Jerusalem," OCCP spokesman Jalal Barham told Middle East Eye. 

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Barham warned that once purchased, the Israeli land project "will destroy the tourism-based economy of Bethlehem". 

Israeli settlements are considered illegal under international law. 

Silencing advocates

The deal, according to the OCCP, is worth 125m shekels ($39m). The two Israeli companies set to buy the land have been identified as Talpiot Hadasha and Broeket Habsaga, contracting firms that operate out of occupied East Jerusalem. 

Barham said the OCCP was able to access details of the deal via an Israeli judicial record, "which any person can consult online". 

But an official with the PLO's Higher Presidential Committee for Churches' Affairs (HCC) told MEE that "the documents exposed by the OCCP are to be doubted". The HCC is the official Palestinian body in charge of relations between the Palestinian government and Christian churches.

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Barham, however, said the HCC's claim against the validity of the documents it gathered regarding the sale are fabricated, telling MEE that the paperwork is "not from secret sources", pointing to the publicly available Israeli judicial records.

The OCCP has received pushback for its advocacy against the land deal, with its first scheduled news conference having been cancelled by unknown authorities. 

Barham said the Bethlehem governor's office initially told the group that its news conference had been cancelled by "senior officials". 

"We contacted the Palestinian government in Ramallah and they told us that no one had given an order to ban the news conference and that we were in our full right to organise it," Barham said. 

"We conclude that the pressure to stop the press conference came from the Higher Presidential Committee for Churches’ Affairs," he alleged. 

"The HCC has pressured us in the past to stop us from denouncing the Orthodox complicity in the Israeli settlement of Jerusalem," he said. 

The HCC, however, has denied that it tried to bar the news conference, telling MEE that its lawyers "are following all the cases of selling church property to settlers" but had not attempted to silence others from looking into such cases.  

A centuries-old controversy

Although the Orthodox patriarchy's controversial land deals have become a hot topic among Palestinians in recent years, tensions between the Orthodox church hierarchy in Jerusalem and its Palestinian congregants is centuries old. 

"The Orthodox question in Palestine is the result of the Greek hegemony over the church of Jerusalem, which dates back to 1534 when the Ottoman empire removed the last Arab indigenous patriarch of Jerusalem, Atallah the 2nd, and let the Greek church name his replacement," Alif Sabbagh, a member of the Central Orthodox Council in Israel, told MEE.

"Since then, the Greek church controls the church and all its properties," he said.

Meanwhile, the OCC has long demanded the right to "Arabise the church" by naming a local patriarch. 

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"This is completely understandable," Sabbagh said. 

"All the bishops in the world are nationals of their own people, except in Palestine. The church hierarchy is strange to the population and their cause, which is why they can't see the problem in selling property to Israeli settlers''.

The Orthodox church properties in Jerusalem and its diocese, which includes all of mandate-Palestine, are administered by the predominantly-Greek “Holy Sepulchre Brotherhood”, formed in the 16th century. 

"The Brotherhood's constitution is completely secular and deals only with property administration, which it explicitly considers belong to the 'Greek Nation', and so it can do with that property whatever it pleases," Sabbagh explained.

The Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem has made extensive land deals in the past, including a rent-contract in 1951 of church-owned land in West Jerusalem to the Jewish National Fund for a period of 99 years. Today, the land houses most Israeli state institutions, including the Israeli Knesset.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, is expected to arrive in Bethlehem on Thursday to celebrate the Christmas mid-night mass according to the Eastern calendar, a visit the OCCP and Palestinian church-based scout groups have called to boycott.

The boycott of Patriarch Theophilos III's Christmas visits has been ongoing for four years in a row, denouncing the patriarch's involvement in the sale and rental of real estate belonging to the Orthodox church to Israeli settlement companies. 

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