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Palestinians mark Orthodox Christmas amid boycott calls, protest

Palestinians protesting against church land sales to Israelis scuffle with Palestinian police in Bethlehem
Palestinian police push away protesters from the convoy of Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III in the West Bank town of Bethlehem on Saturday (AFP)

By Saleh Yousef

Palestinians protesting against church land sales to Israelis scuffled with Palestinian police in Bethlehem Saturday as they tried to block the arrival of the Holy Land's Greek Orthodox patriarch for Christmas celebrations.

Demonstrators scuffled with club-wielding Palestinian security forces and banged on the sides of police escort vehicles but Patriarch Theophilos III passed safely in his black limousine to the Church of the Nativity for the traditional Orthodox Christmas Eve observance.

"Today we stand here to prevent the entry of the traitor Theophilos," Salama Shaheen, an activist of the Arab Orthodox Youth movement, told AFP in Arabic.

"We do not want this man. This man must be brought to trial because he betrayed the homeland, betrayed the church and betrayed every human principle," he added.

Official Palestinian news agency WAFA said Theophilos joined heads of the Syrian and Coptic Orthodox churches in the ancient church, which Christians believe marks the birthplace of Jesus.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's office told AFP he would attend midnight mass celebrated by Theophilos at the church on Saturday and present him with a model of Jerusalem's Holy Sepulchre church as a Christmas gift.

Most Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on 7 January, while those in the West observe it on 25 December because of differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars.

The Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala municipalities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank had called for the boycott over the Greek Orthodox church allegedly allowing controversial sales of its property in mainly Palestinian East Jerusalem to groups aiding Jewish settlement there.

They had urged the public to stay away, but it was not immediately known if there was a significant drop in attendance compared with previous days or what effect driving rain in Bethlehem may have had.

The traditional parade of boy and girl scout marching bands went ahead, and performers in Santa and clown costumes staged a children's show in the square next to the church.

At least some official invitees were at the church to welcome Theophilos, WAFA said on its English-language website.

"He was received by Palestinian officials, including the governor of Bethlehem Jibrin Bakri and Minister of Tourism Rola Mayaya among others," it wrote.

The mayor of the Christian town of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, earlier said he wanted Theophilos removed from his post over the controversial land sales.

"Our move today is a protest against the patriarch over the sale of land of the Orthodox," Mayor Nicola Khamis told AFP.

The church elected Theophilos in 2005 after dismissing his predecessor Irineos over an alleged multi-million-dollar sale of church land to Jewish buyers.

Still, Khamis said, the practice continues.

"Theophilos ignored all the demands and continued selling this land even if the [Christian] majority is against it," he said.

"Today we are taking a stand to say the patriarch must stop the selling of the land."

Property transactions with Jewish buyers anger Palestinians, who see Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state.

In August, Theophilos himself denounced an Israeli court ruling upholding deals made before his appointment between the church and Israeli pro-settlement organisation Ateret Cohanim for two hotel properties near the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City of East Jerusalem.

He said the church would appeal to Israel's supreme court over the ruling.

According to Israeli media, the 2004 agreements were for 99-year leases on hotel properties near Jaffa Gate.

The church went to court against Ateret Cohanim, claiming the deals were signed illegally and without its authorisation.

The Greek Orthodox Church is the largest and wealthiest Christian church in the Holy Land.

Its Jerusalem patriarchate commands massive wealth, largely in land portfolios in Israel, the occupied West Bank and Jordan.

Tel Aviv daily Haaretz reported in October that the church was also selling off vast areas of real estate in West Jerusalem and across Israel.

"In recent years the patriarchate has been quietly selling off its properties in various parts of the country to companies hidden in tax shelters, for sums so low one wonders whether the church is trying to get rid of its assets at any cost," it wrote.

"All the purchasers are foreign companies registered in tax shelters, so it is impossible to obtain information about their owners," it said.

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