Omar Karmi
The National
January 13, 2010 - 1:00am

RAMALLAH // The Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem is once again being rocked by controversy over alleged land sales to Israeli investors in the West Bank.

So incensed is the local Palestinian orthodox community that Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, had to be accompanied by security guards in full riot gear when he arrived in Bethlehem last week to celebrate Christmas.

Many in the local community boycotted Christmas celebrations with Theophilos altogether, while Christian scout group bands that would normally welcome the patriarch stayed silent and some 2,000 scouts refused to greet the Greek patriarch as is otherwise customary.

The controversy began some four months ago after a court in Israel heard two Israeli companies present rival deeds to a piece of land near Bethlehem that both claimed to have leased from its owners, the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Greek Orthodox Church is one of the biggest single landowners in Israel and the Palestinian territories and has engaged in land sales or leases to Israel since the early 1950s. Both the Israeli parliament and the Israeli prime minister’s office are built on formerly Greek Orthodox land.

While such sales were always controversial, leasing land in occupied territory to Israeli or Jewish investors has proven explosive. The latest plot of land in question, between the Har Homa and Gilo settlements south of Jerusalem, is particularly sensitive because it would link those two settlements and close yet another gap in the semicircle of Jewish settlements that is severing the occupied eastern part of Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.

“It is shameful for us that our church is selling land to Israel,” said Elias Iseed, head of the Greek Orthodox Club in Beit Sahour, a village next to Bethlehem.

“It is shameful in front of the other churches and our Muslim brothers, who may not understand that it is the Church, not the people, who are selling the land.”

Mr Iseed, who helped organise the Christmas protests in Bethlehem on January 7, said he thought there was “corruption” in the church, and it needed to be rooted out. The protests at Christmas, he said, were meant to drive that message home to Theophilos. In the orthodox creed, which goes by the Julian calendar, Christmas falls on January 7.

This is not the first time land sales to Israelis have caused serious discord within the Greek Orthodox Church. Theophilos’ predecessor, Ireneos II, was stripped of his authority by the Holy Synod of Jerusalem, the church’s ruling body, in 2005 after another land lease, this one of the Omar Bin Khattab square just inside the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, came to light.

Indeed, Theophilos became patriarch and was recognised by both the Palestinian Authority and the Jordanian government, Jordan also being part of the Holy Land, only after promising no more land sales or leases in occupied territory to Israeli or Jewish investors as well as a concerted effort to reverse previous sales or leases approved by Ireneos.

That, however, put him at odds with Israel, which also must recognise the powers of a new patriarch. Indeed, Israel withheld recognition of the patriarch for two years, during which orthodox clergy started meeting difficulties being granted visas. In an interview with a Greek newspaper in 2006, Theophilos complained of Israeli “blackmail”, the purpose of which he said was “to ratify the agreements for the purchase and sale of property signed by our predecessors”.

The Israeli government eventually recognised the new patriarch in December 2007, however, and some are now suggesting that that recognition came at a price.

“I think the continued leasing of land was a condition by Israel [to grant him recognition],” said Marwan Toubasi, chairman of the Arab Orthodox Council in Palestine.

Mr Toubasi said that while news of the latest lease deal only came out in late 2009, and went to court only because Theophilos had apparently leased a plot of land that Ireneos had already signed off to another group of Jewish investors, the deal was actually struck in 2008.

This was despite what Mr Toubasi said were concerted efforts by the local community to present alternative investors from Arab countries to the church. The local community had even offered to help the Church reverse course on the latest lease deal by raising money to pay any penalty.

“The matter is political. If it were about money, we could find Arab investors,” he said.

The Greek Patriarchate has been highly reticent about speaking out on the matter. It secured an injunction to have the court case over the land near Bethlehem heard behind closed doors. As for the Christmas protests, a spokesman would only say at the time that they were a “personal matter”.

But the matter is not going away. Critics of the patriarch from within the orthodox community are also accusing him of reneging on promises to include two Arab bishops in the Holy Synod, and of generally failing to listen to local concerns. Certainly, continued land sales will make the position of any Greek patriarch extremely difficult, as the signs reading “The Holy Land is not for sale” that greeted Theophilos in Bethlehem last week made clear.

“We are Palestinian before being Christian,” said Mr Toubasi. “This is our land. The core of the struggle with Israel is about land. This is property donated by our ancestors to the church in order to serve the community at large, Muslim or Christian. But in this issue, the Church is serving the interest of Israel to Judaise Jerusalem.”


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