The recently revealed secret sale of Greek Orthodox land in Jerusalem to private investors is reportedly pitting Palestinians and Greek nationals within the church against one another and causing tensions between Palestinian Christians inside and outside of the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinians in the West Bank and Jordan have reportedly called for the ouster of the current Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos lll, following revelations that the church sold off key real estate in West Jerusalem, land that was part of Israel even before the 1967 war.
And some are criticizing the Palestinian Authority for not having done anything to stop or reverse the sales.
The Greek Orthodox Church — the second biggest owner of land in Israel after the Israel Lands Authority — acquired some 4,500 dunams (1,110 acres) of real estate in the center of Jerusalem during the 19th century, primarily for agriculture. In the 1950s, just after Israel’s independence, it agreed to lease its land to the Jewish National Fund for 99 years — with an option to extend.
The sales came to light when the church petitioned the Jerusalem District Court earlier this month to have the Jerusalem City Council exempt it from payments relating to a 2016 sale of 500 dunams (125 acres) in central Jerusalem.
That deal included more than 200 plots in the wealthy neighborhood of Talbieh, where the prime minister’s and president’s residences are located, and in Nayot, near the Israel Museum. The leases tied to the land will run out in around 30 years.
Earlier this month, the Arab Central Orthodox Council called on the Palestinian Authority to sack the current patriarch, Theophilos lll, according to Al-Monitor, a privately-owned, Washington, D.C.-based news site.
Furthermore, on July 6, 112 Jordanian parliamentarians signed a memorandum which they presented to parliamentary speaker Atef Tarawneh, calling on Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki to “summon Theophilos to Amman in order to put an end to his actions and that of his synod, after he let go of more than 500 dunams of the church-owned land.”
In a joint statement issued days earlier, on July 2, 40 Jordanian parliamentarians slammed what they called Theophilos’ “contempt of the Christian Orthodox church in Jerusalem” and demanded that the deals be cancelled.
In a separate move,14 local Orthodox institutions resolved on July 3 to boycott Theophilos and to create a special committee to monitor popular calls to withhold recognition of from him.
In its own approach to the Palestinian Authority, the Arab Central Orthodox Council in Palestine and Jordan approached a body called the Higher Committee of Churches Affairs in Palestine, which was formed in 2012 by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to deal with Christian affairs.
Alif al-Sabbagh, a member of the Council, told Al-Monitor that Theophilos was “signing deals one after another,” but that despite “well-documented proof” having been presented to the PA, the patriarch had “yet to be removed from office.”
Palestinian and Jordanian leaders had to end the dominance of Greek monks over the patriarchate, Sabbagh added, referring to a long-running grievance.
Hana Amira, who heads the committee established by Abbas, said the council’s demands should be presented directly to the Palestinian president and that lawyers should go through the contracts signed.
But he described as “far fetched” calls to replace Greek clergy with Palestinian Christians.
The 2016 deal and an earlier one in 2011 — valued together at around NIS 114 million ($32.4 million) — transfer ownership of church land to groups of companies about which very little is known, but all of which were represented by Jerusalem lawyer Noam Ben David, according to the Calcalist business daily, which broke the story.
The deals were reportedly made not only behind the backs of the homeowners, but also without the knowledge of the JNF and the state.
Homeowners assumed that the JNF would automatically renew the leases when they ran out. Now they fear that at the end of their leases, they will face the choice of either paying high sums to renew their leaseholds or having to sell and move.
The patriarchate falls under Jordanian law and the patriarch himself is issued with a Jordanian passport.
Al-Monitor said the law forbade him from selling church land.
The Palestinian Authority’s role remains unclear.
According to Al-Monitor, the PA denounced the land deal on July 2.
However, in another case, involving the church’s sale of a lease to what Christians believe is the original Hill of Evil Counsel in the neighborhood of Abu Tor, a highly-placed church insider told the Times of Israel that the deal had been quietly approved by the PA.
The row over the sales made under Theophilus echo the anger that lead to the demotion of his predecessor Irenaeus.
Irenaeus was accused of selling land around the Jaffa Gate, within the Old City, which Palestinians hope will eventually form part of a future state.
Although Irenaeus denied the allegations and was exonerated by the Palestinian Authority, the Holy Synod of Jerusalem voted in 2005 to oust him and demote him to the rank of monk. Theophilos was appointed soon afterwards.
Irenaeus has not left his apartment since then, receiving food in bags which he hauls up with a rope.