Orthodox patriarch: ‘Jewish settlers’ threat to Christian presence in Holy Land

In opinion piece published in UK Guardian newspaper, Theophilos III says Jewish takeover of two Old City buildings main threat to entire Christian population

Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox patriarch Theophilos III leads the Christmas Midnight Mass for the Greek Orthodox at the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem, on January 7, 2018. (Musa AL SHAER.AFP)
Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox patriarch Theophilos III leads the Christmas Midnight Mass for the Greek Orthodox at the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem, on January 7, 2018. (Musa AL SHAER.AFP)

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Patriarch Theophilos III said that “radical Israeli settlers” in Jerusalem are threatening to upset the religious status quo and are threatening the very presence of Christian life in the Holy Land.

In an opinion piece published in the UK Guardian newspaper Sunday, as Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas according to their calendar, Theophilos wrote that Jerusalem is not the property of anyone one group, but rather should be shared by all, while also indicating that joint Christian-Muslim custodianship is the basis for a peaceful status quo.

“One of the foremost threats to Christians in the Holy Land is the unacceptable activities of radical settler groups, which are attempting to establish control over properties around the Jaffa gate,” wrote Theophilos of two hotel buildings in the Old City of Jerusalem purchased in 2004 by the pro-settlement Ateret Cohanim organization.

“If the settler groups were to gain control of the properties, they would be able to pursue their aggressive campaign of removing non-Jews from the City and from these strategic centers at the heart of the Christian quarter, threatening the very presence of Christians in the Holy Land,” he warned.

Israel does not view Jews living in Jerusalem as settlers. Israel annexed East Jerusalem, which it captured in the 1967 Six Day War, and regards the whole city as its capital, a move not recognized by much of the international community.

In August, Theophilos himself denounced an Israeli court ruling upholding deals made before his appointment between the church and Ateret Cohanim for the two Old City hotel properties — the New Imperial and the Petra. The 2004 agreements were for 99-year leases on the properties near Jaffa Gate.

Property transactions with Jewish buyers anger Palestinians, who see East Jerusalem, which contains the Old City, as the capital of their promised state.

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

The Greek Orthodox Church is the largest and wealthiest Christian Church in Israel.

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

Grappling with tens of millions of dollars of debt, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem has managed to raise cash by selling and leasing plots to a number of overseas companies all headed by Jewish investors, senior figures in the Greek Orthodox Church told The Times of Israel recently.

It is not clear why Theophilos singled out these two property deals as singlehandedly jeopardizing Christian communities all over Israel and the Palestinian areas.

The Christian exodus has been underway for decades, as economic hardship and the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have sent Christians searching for better opportunities overseas.

Christians in the Holy Land have dwindled from over 10 percent of the population on the eve of Israel’s founding to between 2% and 3% today, according to the local Roman Catholic church.

The decline began with high Jewish immigration and Christian emigration after the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s establishment, and has been abetted by continued emigration and a low birthrate among Christians who stay.

A Christian worshipper lights a candle at the Church of the Nativity, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, December 24, 2016 (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Israeli restrictions in the West Bank have also persuaded Christians to leave, as have economic hardship and corruption in the Palestinian areas, and instances of Islamic extremism, particularly in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Most of the decline has been in Palestinian areas. About 38,000 Palestinian Christians live in the West Bank, 2,000 in Gaza, and 10,000 in Jerusalem, according to the local Roman Catholic church.

Israel has 130,000 Arab Christians. There are also nearly 200,000 non-native Christians in Israel, including Christians who moved from the former Soviet Union because of Jewish family ties, guest workers and African migrants.

The Foreign Ministry said it had no response to the comments, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frequently touted Israel as the only country in the region that guarantees the rights of all religious groups.

The Petra Hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem. (CC-BY-SA: Ranbar/Wikimedia)

Theophilos’ article also comes after US President Donald Trump’s shift in policy to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, writing that “as well as the threat to the political status quo, there is a threat also to the religious status quo, a threat instigated by radical settlers in and around Jerusalem, the heart of Christianity.”

Recalling the two-thousand year history of Christians in the Holy Land, Theophilos noted that Christians have “survived countless invasions, and have flourished under many different forms of government.”

“Our survival has depended on the principle that the holy places must be shared by and be accessible to all,” he noted.

An agreement between Christians and Muslims to share custodianship was reached after Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab invaded Jerusalem in 637, he stated.

It was “a covenant that paved the way for an era of peace. This covenant was based on an understanding of shared custodianship of the holy places.”

Theophilos also raised his concerns about a Knesset bill that would confiscate lands in Israel the patriarchate has sold to private investors, seeing the move as an unacceptable attempt by the state to interfere in the church’s right to deal freely with its own real estate. The patriarch recently traveled to the UK to drum up opposition to the bill, meeting with church figures, government ministers, and Prince Charles.

Screen capture from video of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, during a press conference about the sale of church lands, November 2, 2017. (YouTube/The Tablet international Catholic weekly)

The bill was proposed by MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) after it was revealed during the summer that the church had sold to anonymous businessmen land in central Jerusalem on which some 1,500 homes have been built on a leasehold basis.

Theophilos has also faced heated criticism from Palestinians over the sale of land to Israelis.

In Bethlehem, on Saturday, protesters thumped on the patriarch’s car as he arrived for Christmas celebrations at the Church of Nativity.

The church elected Theophilos in 2005 after dismissing his predecessor Irineos over an alleged multi-million-dollar sale of church land to Jewish buyers. He leads a predominantly Arab flock of 220,000 Christians in Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.


Agencies contributed to this report.

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