BETHLEHEM (AFP) — Palestinians protesting 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.
Official Palestinian news agency WAFA said he joined heads of the Syrian and Coptic Orthodox churches in the ancient church, which Christians believe marks the birthplace of Jesus.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s office told AFP he would attend midnight mass celebrated by Theophilos at the church on Saturday and would present him with a model of Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre church as a Christmas gift.
The Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, and Beit Jala municipalities in the West Bank had called for a 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 to previous days or what effect driving rain in Bethlehem may have had.
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.
But Khamis says 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 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 organization Ateret Cohanim for two hotel properties near the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem.
He said the church would appeal to Israel’s supreme court over the ruling.
According to Hebrew 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 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.
Most Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7, while those in the West observe it on December 25 because of differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars.
Grappling with tens of millions of dollars of debt, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem has managed to balance its books 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.