Don’t Blame the Orthodox Church for Nasty Political Games in the Holy Land

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is not deliberately selling off land to Israeli settlers. It has been the victim of fraud and attacks by Israeli extremists.

Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox patriarch, Theophilos III (center), arrives at the Church of the Nativity in the occupied West Bank town of Bethlehem on Jan. 6. (Musa al-Shaer/AFP/Getty Images)
Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox patriarch, Theophilos III (center), arrives at the Church of the Nativity in the occupied West Bank town of Bethlehem on Jan. 6. (Musa al-Shaer/AFP/Getty Images)

In her Jan. 7 article for Foreign Policy, “Holy Land for Sale,” Dalia Hatuqa presented a picture of large-scale discontent within the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem that exaggerates the numbers and importance of the dissidents within the church, misstates many facts, and distracts attention from an existential threat to all Christian churches in the Holy Land, not just the Greek Orthodox Church.

The article unwittingly serves the interests of extremists among the Israeli settler movement, allied with politicians seeking political gain, who have targeted the land holdings of all the churches—Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, Coptic, Anglican, and half a dozen others—that make up the Christian community of the Holy Land.

Ateret Cohanim, a settler organization that aims to expel Muslims and Christians from Jerusalem, has, as correctly noted in Hatuqa’s article, systematically acquired property in the Old City through a toxic mixture of intimidation and bribery—and occasionally violent occupation. Once Ateret Cohanim acquires a property, its adherents occupy the buildings and terrorize the surrounding neighborhood. They play loud music at night, assault women, and spit on priests. Jerusalem Christians believe that Ateret Cohanim has also vandalized churches and other holy sites. In a sad commentary on the abuse of U.S. tax laws, Ateret Cohanim receives much of its financing through its eponymous U.S.-registered charity.

In 2004, dummy Caribbean entities affiliated with Ateret Cohanim bribed high-ranking employees of the Orthodox Patriarchate to lease four strategically located church-owned properties near Jaffa Gate, the entry into the Old City’s Christian and Armenian Quarters. The Holy Synod, effectively the patriarchate’s board of directors, discovered the fraud in 2005 and took Ateret Cohanim to court. Unfortunately, the settler organization has managed to repeatedly delay proceedings so that the matter is still pending in Israeli courts.

Hatuqa’s article implies that the Holy Synod deposed Patriarch Irenaios I and elected Patriarch Theophilos III as part of the plot to sell the land. In fact, the Holy Synod deposed Irenaios after it learned of the fraudulent transaction and instituted the process that ultimately elected Theophilos to the patriarchal throne.

This process included approval by church elders, the lower clergy, and the governments of Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority before it came to a vote in the synod. Hatuqa’s assertion that the Palestinian Authority absolved Irenaios of responsibility in the affair is simply untrue. The statement that Irenaios is currently confined under house arrest is misleading; he is free to leave and return to his native Greece. Why he does not is a question best directed to the deposed cleric himself.

The real story, largely overlooked in Hatuqa’s article, is that a number of Israeli politicians have pandered to anti-Arab and anti-Christian sentiments among a portion of their constituency to initiate actions that, if they succeed, will constitute one of the largest illegal land grabs in recent history. By way of background, in 1951 the Jewish National Fund (JNF) coerced the Orthodox Patriarchate to lease a large tract of land known as Rehavia in what is now West Jerusalem for a piddling sum. The fund then subleased the property to developers as well as to the Israeli government.

The neighborhood of Rehavia today contains the Knesset, the offices of the president and prime minister of Israel, the national museum, and the most upscale and expensive residential buildings in Jerusalem. Although 2050, when the lease expires, may appear to be a long way away, the JNF faces the grim reality that the vast appreciation of value of Rehavia will require it to pay a correspondingly increased rent. Therefore, the JNF has tried to acquire the freehold from the patriarchate by various means, all of which have failed.

In 2017, the JNF took a new tack, alleging that the patriarchate planned to evict the Israeli government from the Knesset and thousands of tenants from the homes that they rented from the JNF. One of those tenants, Knesset member Rachel Azaria, has sponsored a bill, as noted in Hatuqa’s article, that would allow the government to confiscate church land. The article neglects to mention that Azaria rented her home in full knowledge that her leasehold would expire in 2050. In fact, Azaria has no reason to worry; the original leasehold gives JNF the exclusive right of first refusal and requires the patriarchate to submit any rent increase to a mediator.

Azaria’s bill, however, is phrased in such a way as to permit the confiscation of any land leased for commercial purposes by any church located within Israel. Azaria has the support of Israel’s justice minister, Ayelet Shaked. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin recognize that passage of this legislation would place Israel in open confrontation with virtually the whole of organized Christendom and, as noted in the article, have managed to prevent it from coming to a vote. Unfazed, Azaria and her supporters have resubmitted the bill six times to the Knesset under different names. Netanyahu and Rivlin continue, wisely, to block it. But the threat remains.

This threat to confiscate land represents an existential threat to all churches because all the churches depend on their real estate to sustain their mission. Donations from pilgrims do not pay the bills. The mission of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem is to protect and steward the holy places as places of worship open to all people and to tend to its flock, which includes indigenous Christians, immigrants from other continents, and pilgrims from around the world. All the other churches in Jerusalem share the same mission. The patriarchate has responsibility for about 100 churches, monasteries, and other holy sites. These shrines are the sacred heritage entrusted to the patriarchate since the earliest days of Christianity. Pilgrims and natives visit these places by the millions each year. It is a sacred and serious task to maintain them. The cost of this mission is significant and depends almost entirely on real estate revenues.

The patriarchate dedicates itself to offering service to all people in need without conditions or discrimination. In the Holy Land, sadly, there is much need and much suffering. The patriarchate has fulfilled this pastoral obligation since the birth of Christianity. Governments, diplomatic missions, and nongovernmental organizations often lack the means to reach the most vulnerable. The church can go where others cannot and provides services to the sick, needy, displaced, or abandoned. By adhering to a strictly spiritual mission that is inclusive of all people, the patriarchate has been able to circumvent politics, provide relief, and offer hope of reconciliation.

The church also maintains an extensive educational system, health facilities, charities, and youth centers. It sponsors and supports more than 20 K-12 schools with approximately 15,000 students of all faiths throughout the land west of the Jordan River and many schools in Jordan. In addition to educating students, the patriarchal schools provide hundreds of jobs to the community as teachers, principals, maintenance staff, doormen, secretaries, and tutors. The church operates the Patriarch Benedict Health Clinic in the Old City of Jerusalem that provides full health services, including an in-house pharmacy, either without cost or at a highly discounted rate to anyone in need. It cares for Jerusalem residents who lack health insurance, as well as the elderly and visiting pilgrims, without ethnic or religious discrimination. The patriarchate also financially supports the charity Four Homes of Mercy, which provides permanent housing and care to the disabled and chronically ill, currently ranging from ages 4 to 94.

When crisis strikes, the church provides refuge. During Israel’s military operations in Gaza in 2014, the Greek Orthodox Church opened its doors to several thousand people who had no other place to go, providing temporary refuge and aid until the cease-fire. When the Syrian civil war broke out, the patriarchate established the “Orthodox Initiative” in Jordan to aid tens of thousands of refugees. The Jordanian government does not oversee these camps, and NGOs often have difficulty reaching them. The church distributes food and hygiene parcels and maintains an unofficial school system, teaching men and women crafts and trades for future employment. The church provides the dignity and respect they had not felt since they left their homes in Syria.

The dissident groups Hatuqa describes represent a small group of Palestinian Christians who resent the fact that ethnic Greeks dominate the hierarchy of the patriarchate. This is a long-standing political issue beyond the scope of this article. However, we should note that both the king of Jordan, the recognized international protector of Christian and Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, and the Palestinian political leadership support the present hierarchy in the not unreasonable belief that international leadership of the churches hinders Israeli land seizures. In the same vein, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority also support Franciscans’ (i.e., Italian citizens’) control of the Jerusalem Catholic Church, English hierarchs in the Anglican Church, and Armenian and Egyptian Coptic bishops protecting their own respective institutions.

The article mentions dissident Palestinian groups’ criticisms of land sales in Jaffa and elsewhere in the internationally recognized pre-1967 boundaries of Israel. Almost all these transactions have been leases, not sales. In fact, the church has also bought land in Israel. The dissidents’ assertion that 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” has no basis. The church has purchased all its land from its own resources and endowments from abroad and has the records to prove it. Within the occupied territories, the church has neither sold nor knowingly leased land to Israeli interests; as noted above, extremist settlers have illegally occupied some property through fraud, subterfuge, or violence.

Finally, the article fails to note that the demonstrations against the patriarchate have usually consisted of only a few dozen activists. The statement in the article that “Sunday mass and prayers are held in Greek” is also not true. Almost the entire Divine Liturgy today is conducted in Arabic throughout the patriarchate. Despite what the article asserts, the overwhelming majority of parish priests are Arab Palestinians. Ethnic Greeks are only a few dozen concentrated in the hierarchy, but there are several Arab bishops as well. Greek flags are indeed flown outside Orthodox churches and holy sites, and they are there with the full knowledge of the Palestinian and Jordanian authorities, who regard them as a deterrent to Israeli encroachment.

Extremist Israeli groups are seeking to create a negative environment that will undermine U.S. support for the traditional churches in Jerusalem; Palestinians who oppose those extremists should not fall into their public relations trap. Hatuqa did not reach out to church representatives, who are authorized to speak on behalf of its leadership; she could have gone to the prominently marked and very well-known offices of the patriarchate in Jerusalem for further comment.

Christianity began in the Middle East, and for the first millennium or so of its existence, more Christians lived in the region between the Adriatic Sea and the Persian Gulf than in Western Europe. Unfortunately, the end of World War I, another great victory for the Christian West, accelerated the hemorrhaging of Christians from the region. Unless we learn more and care more about the Christians of the region, we may very well all be guilty of letting Christianity disappear altogether from Christ’s homeland.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the views of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.

Patrick N. Theros, a career diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Qatar from 1995 to 1998, is a strategic advisor to the Gulf International Forum and the appointed representative of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem in the United States.

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