Holy Land for Sale

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is selling church land that’s ending up in the hands of Israeli settler groups. Its Palestinian Christian congregants are furious.

A Greek Orthodox altar boy carries a cross before participating in a procession, during the community's Christmas celebrations, outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Jan. 6. (Musa al-Shaer/AFP/Getty Images)
A Greek Orthodox altar boy carries a cross before participating in a procession, during the community's Christmas celebrations, outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Jan. 6. (Musa al-Shaer/AFP/Getty Images)

On the eve of Orthodox Christmas, on Jan. 6, dozens of Palestinians lining the cobblestone roads of Bethlehem protested the convoy of the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, with chants of “traitor” as it made its way to Manger Square under heavy protection by Palestinian security forces. Representatives of Bethlehem municipality gave the patriarch the cold shoulder, refusing to meet him in the square as is customary.

The protesters are enraged because the Greek Orthodox Church, the second-biggest landowner in the Holy Land, has  been embroiled in a real estate controversy for many years. The church—which owns about one-third of the land in Jerusalem’s Old City as well as property in the West Bank and in Israel, including the plot on which the Knesset is built—has quietly sold off plots of land and property to frontmen and developers, with many ending up in the hands of Israeli settler groups. The practice of selling off church property or leasing it for decades has pitted the clergy, the majority of whom are Greek, against their Palestinian flock. As these deals began to surface, protests by the church’s majority Palestinian congregation have intensified, as has fear among Israelis whose homes are located on leased church land.

Now, an Israeli Knesset member, Rachel Azaria of the centrist Kulanu party, has sponsored a bill that would effectively allow the government to seize church land sold to private developers. Azaria argues that the proposal aims to protect residents living on leased church land, who fear that developers can do whatever they please with newly acquired property, including hiking up rent or evicting them to make way for new development.

Last year, on Oct. 22, a debate on the legislation was frozen following intense pressure from church leaders, who say the bill would allow the state to expropriate their property. Since then, they’ve garnered the support of a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, who sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo protesting the bill.

Palestinian Christians believe that the church should not even be selling this land and property to begin with, citing fears that doing so further exacerbates their shrinking presence in the Holy Land. They also say that selling to Israeli settler groups expands the Jewish presence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where the Palestinian leadership hopes to build an independent state.

“It comes down to this long-running dispute between the faithful, who are Palestinian Arabs, and the clergy, which is dominated by foreign Greeks, some of whom are unsavory characters who have cut all kinds of overt deals with the Israelis to maintain their positions and increase their power within the church,” said Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow with the Institute for Palestine Studies.

Rabbani said some church leaders “are being weaponized against their own congregation by the Israelis and in response appear to be all too readily collaborating with them, including on the ultimate sin.” That sin? “Selling land to Israel—and often at preferential prices,” he said. The church claims that, at times, the Israeli government has threatened it, but, in other cases, the church has proved willing to sell, often at preferential prices.

Indeed, the crisis involving the church came following reports that the patriarchate—the Orthodox church leadership—had sold property to shadowy intermediaries, only to have it end up in the hands of Israeli settler groups or businesses.

“These land sales are part of an active and ongoing colonial project where Israel and its agents are using real estate transactions to fundamentally transform the demographic character of Jerusalem,” Rabbani said. “When land is sold to Israel or agents acting on its behalf,” he adds, they “have no possibility of purchasing it back even at fair market value,” effectively driving Palestinians out.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem has denied accusations that it willingly sold to right-wing Israeli groups and defended its handling of property by saying it leases it rather than sells it, thereby keeping it safe while bringing in much-needed revenue. It also said it needed to make these sales to pay back debt from bad investments made under previous leaders.

The church operates in Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories, and Jordan and says leasing or selling land is a means to keep its operations in these jurisdictions running. Church officials said the Israeli government, in some cases, expropriated the land or pressured the church to sell or lease its property. The church finds itself between a rock and a hard place, since Israel has a variety of means at its disposal (denying visas for clergy, taxing church property, or threatening to expropriate property) to coerce church officials into cooperation.

The land issue already led to the ouster of one patriarch, Irenaios I, and his successor, Theophilos III, has had a turbulent leadership since taking over. Irenaios was deposed by the church synod (its governing body) in 2005, and for years he lived under house arrest in the church headquarters in Jerusalem’s Old City, with food delivered to him by sympathizers through a basket hauled up to his window by a rope.

Irenaios did not recognize his successor, who assumed power after it emerged that a secret deal was made in 2004 by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to sell three strategically located East Jerusalem properties. The sale was made to Ateret Cohanim, a settler group that actively works to evict Palestinians in the Old City to increase Jewish control of the area.

Irenaios was accused of conspiring to sell the property, which included two hotels near Jaffa Gate, a popular entrance to the Old City, causing uproar among Palestinians. A probe by the Palestinian Authority (PA) that determined he was not involved in the controversial sale did not alleviate their anger.

Theophilos is currently fighting that sale in court, but he’s also feeling the heat after it emerged that additional land sales were approved under his leadership. Palestinian church members and clergy have protested Theophilos at least three times in 2018 and filed a lawsuit relating to some of the sales in question.

This year’s protest, and a similar one in 2018, during which demonstrators hurled trash and lobbed eggs at the patriarch’s convoy, came on the heels of a protest in September 2017 and a conference in October of that year that called for the church leader’s resignation. Attended by members of the Orthodox community, “the conference recommended to the PA and Jordan to isolate this patriarch and demanded an explanation as to how these lands were sold,” said Issa Rishmawi, a spokesman for the Arab Orthodox youth activist movement in Beit Sahour, a town next to Bethlehem.

“What we are calling for is clarity and transparency by the patriarchate in Jerusalem. The way the Holy Synod under [Theophilos’s leadership] deals with the flock can only be described as a dictatorship,” he said.

The issue of land and property in Jerusalem can therefore become a matter of life and death. A Muslim Jerusalemite family is currently under pressure from the Palestinian community in East Jerusalem to relinquish the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—traditionally believed to be the site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial—which it has historically held, after it emerged that a house belonging to one of the family’s members ended up in the hands of Ateret Cohanim.

Adeeb Joudeh al-Husseini, who personally holds the keys, is facing death threats and public shaming despite his insistence that he sold his house in the Old City to a Palestinian lawyer. It later came out, after the house ended up in settlers’ hands, that the lawyer was a middleman. The group buys Palestinian houses, often through a web of straw buyers and middlemen, in order to settle Jewish families in historically Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem to shift the city’s demographics.

“The strategy of groups like Ateret Cohanim has been to take over house by house—to be able to bolster that argument [used in final status negotiations] that ‘what is Jewish shall become Israel and what is Arab shall become Palestine’—if there’s ever going to be a Palestine,” said Diana Buttu, a former legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team. “This has been the long-standing strategy. This is why there is so much attention placed on house demolitions or settler takeovers in Jerusalem.”

In recent months, more details have surfaced about these deals, many of which involved land that the church leased in the 1950s to Israeli government-affiliated institutions such as the Jewish National Fund, a charity created more than a century ago to acquire land and establish a Jewish state in what was then British Palestine.

The church also sold plots of land in Jaffa, the historically Palestinian town next to Tel Aviv; the coastal town of Caesarea; and both West and East Jerusalem, many of them at discount prices. Palestinian Orthodox activists say the church has no right to the property because the community’s ancestors endowed most of it to the church for safekeeping during the Ottoman and British occupations.

The controversial land sales have also renewed long-standing demands to Arabize the Greek-dominated Orthodox church. “We feel like we are strangers in our church. Everything related to the church is Greek,” Rishmawi said. “Sunday Mass and prayers are held in Greek, and we have to learn the language to understand the words being uttered in our own church. A Greek flag flies over our church. The land our churches are on is considered Greek. It feels like occupied territory.”

Dalia Hatuqa is a multimedia journalist based in the United States and the West Bank. Twitter: @daliahatuqa