Palestinians call for ouster of Greek Orthodox patriarch
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Palestinians call for ouster of Greek Orthodox patriarch

Demonstrators protest outside of patriarchate in Jerusalem over sale of church land in city to anonymous investors

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III (C) leads the Palm Sunday Easter procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on April 9, 2017. (AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon)
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III (C) leads the Palm Sunday Easter procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on April 9, 2017. (AFP Photo/Gali Tibbon)

Palestinian Christians protested against the Greek Orthodox patriarch of the Holy Land on Saturday, demanding the resignation of Theophilos III for allegedly selling church land to Israelis.

Some 200 demonstrators rallied Saturday outside the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Jerusalem’s Old City. Some raised banners reading “Theophilos is unworthy.”

The church is one of the largest real estate owners in the Holy Land. It is dominated by Greek clergy while the flock is overwhelmingly Palestinian.

Activists have presented documents they say show the patriarch sold land in Jerusalem and elsewhere in sweetheart deals. They demand that the church open its books and that the patriarch resign.

Last month, about 300 Palestinian Christians and lay groups filed a complaint against Theophilos with the Palestinian Authority’s attorney general, accusing him of “selling land to the enemy.”

The land sale deals have also caused consternation among many Israelis, who have raised concerns of the fate of the homeowners on large tracts of land in Jerusalem sold by the church.

On Wednesday, the chairman of the KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund launched a blistering attack on the group of anonymous investors who bought the prime Jerusalem real estate from the church.

The deal has plunged more than 1,000 homeowners into uncertainty because they sublease the land on which their homes are built from the KKL-JNF, which currently holds the primary leases.

A view of Marcus Street in Talbieh, one of the Jerusalem neighborhoods with a large number of Greek Orthodox Patriarchate-owned properties (Courtesy Eiferman Realty)

In a letter to the residents of Talbieh and Nayot, Daniel Atar charged that the representative of the investors sent a letter to the KKL-JNF last week threatening to cancel the current lease, which runs out in the early 2050s.

He claimed that the investors “continue to harden their positions for the sake of profit, cynically using you, the residents, as ‘hostages’ in order to maximize their profits.”

“There is no doubt that the government of Israel cannot allow a situation in which veteran residents are at the mercy of a group of private investors (whose identity is not completely known), without any regulation of the matter,” A KKL-JNF spokesperson told The Times of Israel.

Avraham Aberman, a partner at Ephraim Abramson, who represents the investors, hit back Wednesday, telling The Times of Israel that the threat was delivered after the KKL-JNF had failed to pay lease installments for more than 10 years, and that the contracts inherited from the Patriarchate provided for the landowners to cancel the leases if the dues were not paid within three months of a warning, although without harming homeowners’ rights.

At issue are 570 dunams (140 acres) of land in the upscale neighborhood of Talbieh, in central Jerusalem, as well as the neighborhood of Nayot, extending into large parts of the Valley of the Cross, a rare tract of undeveloped land in the center of the capital, revered as the place where – according to Christian tradition – the wood was taken to make the crucifix for Jesus. It also includes much of the Israel Museum and well known hotels such as the Inbal and the Dan Panorama.

The land was sold by the Greek Patriarchate to a group called Nayot Komemyut Investments in 2016. The only known investor in the group is the Ben David family of Jerusalem, which owns less than half the shares. The Ben Davids invest in real estate and oil exploration.

The Monastery of the Cross (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

If the leases are not renewed when they run out in the early 2050s, the homeowners who have not sold by then risk being forced to leave, to pay potentially high prices to extend leases or even to rent their own homes. The prices of their homes have already been negatively affected.

The situation is new because for the last few decades, the church has only leased land, not sold it.

The church, one of the country’s largest landowners, owns tens of thousands of dunams (acres) of land around the country. Some of its holdings are in sensitive areas such as city centers and antiquities sites, including the land the Knesset is built on in Jerusalem. In all, churches own about 100,000 dunams (24,000 acres) in Israel.

But while they are wealthy in land, they are short on cash flow, largely because of decreasing support from a declining Christian community in the Holy Land.

Recent media reports have also exposed sales of Greek Orthodox Church land to private investors elsewhere in Jerusalem, at an antiquities site in the coastal city of Caesarea and around the iconic clock tower in Jaffa.

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