Christian leaders on Thursday protested the sale of properties owned by the Greek Orthodox church to a Jewish pro-settlement group in mainly Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem.
Israel’s top court gave final approval on June 11 to the 2004 long-term lease of three buildings located in East Jerusalem’s Old City to businesses linked to the Ateret Cohanim organization.
The group works to increase the Jewish population in East Jerusalem by purchasing real estate in Palestinian areas through front companies.
The deal made Ateret Cohanim the owner of the majority of properties located between the Old City’s Jaffa Gate and the entrance to its Arab market.
On Thursday, Christian leaders including Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus III prayed “for peace” in Arabic, Greek and English outside two hostels near Jaffa Gate in the Christian quarter that have been taken over by Jewish buyers.
They expressed support for the tenants set to be evicted and the patriarch denounced the actions of “extremist groups trying to weaken the unity and identity of the Christian neighborhood.”
“The settlers want to take over our heritage,” the spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Church, Issa Musleh, told AFP, claiming the sale was only made possible by forged documents.
The sale triggered Palestinian anger and led to the 2005 dismissal of Patriarch Irineos I.
Ateret Cohanim’s purchase of 99-year leases through three front companies was challenged by the church, which claimed that the deals were signed by a corrupt church official who had not been authorized to do so. Last month the Supreme Court ruled that the church failed to provide sufficient evidence that the agreements were made fraudulently.
According to court documents, front companies called Berisford Investments Limited, Richards Marketing Corporation, and Gallow Global Limited signed agreements with the Greek Orthodox church in 2004 to pay $1.25 million for the lease to the Hotel Imperial, $500,000 for the lease to the Petra Hotel, and $55,000 to lease a third property called Muzamiya House, also in the Old City.
Palestinians have often accused the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of selling or leasing its properties to Israel.
“We are ashamed of the actions of the [current] patriarch,” a Christian leader who asked to remain anonymous told AFP. “We know there are many properties that have been sold.”
Israel captured mainly Palestinian East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.
It now considers the entire city its capital, while Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Some 320,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, while the Israeli population there has grown to 210,000.