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Anger over church land sales to Israel - Nikola Kosmatopoulos

Jan. 4, 2010 5:30 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 12, 2010 1:51 P.M.)
Jerusalem - Serious charges are being made against the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem by Palestinian Greek Orthodox organizations and other local bodies. These charges, which are reminiscent of the times of the legendary Irineos, include corruption, deception of the parish and extensive cooperation with Israel in the Judaization of Jerusalem.

In a lengthy statement, the "Council of Arab Orthodox Institutions and Organizations in Palestine" attacked the Patriarchate in harsh and angry manner, accusing it of overtly selling Palestinian land to Israeli companies for "thirty pieces of silver" and calling on it to "stop being a real estate business."

Cancellation request

These Palestinian Greek Orthodox organizations are demanding the immediate cancellation of the agreements granting land to Israeli contractors, as well as the immediate implementation of the promises made by the new Patriarch to the Palestinian Authority, to the Jordanian government and to the Greek Orthodox parish in Palestine just before his election to office in 2005.

"We urge the Patriarchate to abolish the agreements and to allow the implementation of Law 27 of 1958, which calls for the establishment of a Joint Board consisting of eight laity and clergy representatives. We also ask for the publication of the finances of the church. We are totally in the dark! The only way to know if our land is being sold is to Israeli companies is to take the issue to their own courts! This is how we found out about this agreement." says Marwan Toubasi, who is a member of the Arab Orthodox community in Palestine, the Deputy Minister of Tourism and the soul behind the protest.

The plot of land to be sold is located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and consists of 71 dumums. (The mayor of Bethlehem told me that this land actually belongs to the city of Bethlehem.) In other words, part of this plot is expected to belong to a future Palestinian state. The protesters believe that selling the plot of land to Israeli-owned companies will lead to the construction of yet another settlement and to the de facto expansion of Israel into internationally recognized Palestinian land.

The anger of the Arab Orthodox community was further fueled by a series of "treacherous agreements made with the Patriarchate which are contributing to the cutting off of East Jerusalem and Bethlehem from the Palestinian hinterland," a PLO official and member of a governmental committee in charge of negotiations with Israel said off the record. Most Palestinians see this agreement as nothing more than the perpetuation of a treacherous policy, which could result in the unconditional surrender of Palestinian land to Israel.

"The land has been assigned to the Patriarchate by the Orthodox parish of Palestine since the time of the Ottoman Empire, and prior still. It should be used for the good of the community, but unfortunately it has been leased for 99 years to the Israelis, who continuously build on it. The Knesset (parliament), the Residence of the President of Israel, as well as the settlements of Har Homa (Jabal Abu Gnaim in Arabic) and Ma'aleh Adumim among others, are built on endowments from the Orthodox Church" said Toubasi.

Popular courts

Accusations abound. In addition to charges of cooperation with Israel on the Judaization of East Jerusalem, the Arab representatives also accuse the new Orthodox Patriarch of sharing some old 'virtues' with Irineos, who had made secret deals with the Israelis. For instance, the "Israeli New Talpiyot," the "development company" which was granted the land, was registered on April 27th, 2009, just one day before the Patriarch Theophilos III signed the concession agreement.

The difference between Irineos I and Theophilos III is nevertheless significant, since the former signed a contract with another Israeli company, Parra, which granted them the right to manage all the Patriarchal land (including cemeteries) just ten days before his dismissal. In compliance with his electoral promises, Theophilos III declared the Irineos-Parra agreement void. However, he quickly went on to sign an agreement with the newly established Israeli New Talpiyot. Shortly after this, Parra sued Israeli New Talpiyot over rights to the land. The case found its way to the Israeli civil courts, and later to the Palestinian "popular" courts.

"Of course, this is all done behind the curtains, otherwise it would cause serious trouble," Dr Ellie Assaid, Head of the Palestinian-Greek Friendship Society based in Bethlehem noted. When asked about the Patriarchate’s response to these accusations, said their general statements about the "interests of the community and the Patriarchate" do not convince anyone. "They tell us they are going to give us 120 apartments in an Israeli settlement, but can we believe this? We see it merely as a continuation of the isolation of Jerusalem."

Demonstration in Bethlehem

In a most symbolic way, the Arab Orthodox organizations chose to protest against the deals made between the Patriarchate and these Israeli companies by organizing a silent gathering in front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on October 11th, 2009. The main banner, simple and clear: "The Land of the Greek Orthodox Church does not belong to the Israeli settlers." The governor, the mayor, as well as the head of the Palestinian Orthodox community of the city of Bethlehem, Mr Toubasi, attended and spoke at the gathering. Mr Victor Batarseh, the mayor, said at the time: "We are not attacking anyone personally, but the Church should buy land rather than sell it to the Israelis."

It seems that the electric chair of the Jerusalem Patriarch is becoming hazardously charged. Protesters even plan to disrupt the Christmas mass in Bethlehem this year. They accuse the Patriarchate of deceiving the parish and of imposing “Omerta” (code of silence) onto the local media through illicit means.

"This time, we will not compromise. We will hold a rally every Sunday" says Dr Assaid. Mr Toubasi explains the most obvious, namely how important the issue of land is for the Palestinians and how betrayed they feel by the Orthodox Church in this matter. "Christians are an authentic part of the Palestinian people, but the policy of the Patriarchate has increased the rate of migration of Christians away from the Holy Land. They are not interested in the community, unlike the Catholics who fight with Israel for every inch," says the Orthodox Mr Toubasi bitterly.

"We respect the Greek people. We know that they support the Palestinians. We won’t forget 1982 in Lebanon, and the help of the Greek people. We will not accept the corruption of the excellent relationship between the Greeks and Palestinians by the murky business conducted by the Patriarchate. We urge the Greek government to take action," he says, while the Greek-speaking Dr Assaid mumbles vague words of hope for the new Prime Minister of Greece.

The Patriarchate: "State within a state"

For the Patriarchate, things are, of course, completely different. His Reverence Mr Kontogiannis, the press officer for the Patriarchate, finally agreed to answer my questions after having insisted that these issues are complex and require at least two hours to explain. He dismissed the right of the protesters to speak on behalf of Palestinians in general. When we mentioned the names and the titles of the Arab Orthodox representatives who had spoken with us, he said, ironically, “This guy is only president of his house and of his wife. And I am not even sure about the last one.”

He denied that the Palestinians have anything to do with the land of the Patriarchate: “Our land is being purchased by Greek monks over the centuries, and there are papers that prove this.” Therefore it shall be managed according to the “interests of the Patriarchate, and those interests alone.” In reference to complaints about the allocation of land, he said that this is not a concession, but mere leasing: "No matter what the Israelis build on it, everything remains in the name of the Patriarchate. We do not sell land, we only lease it for 99, 70, or 130 years.” Finally, his response to the accusations that the Patriarch failed to fulfill his pre-election pledges was underwhelming: "There is no such issue. The Patriarchate is a state within a state. Do you think we would accept to negotiate with anyone?"

The other representative of the Patriarchate, Mr Aristarchos Peristeris, refused to make any statement. Instead, he referred us to the website of the foundation, where the relevant statement was published. Despite meticulous searching, it could not be located. (The statement was sent out by Mr Kontogiannis later that day. It turned out to be a mere condemnation of the ousted Irineos I and his actions). The most recent, and perhaps most interesting, document available on the website was a speech given by Theophilos III in a ceremony honoring the Israeli Police in mid-September 2009. The Patriarch addressed the head of the Jerusalem Police, Mr Franco, and its "respected members" with the following words, which I believe should be quoted verbatim and as lengthily as possible:

“We greet you warmly on our behalf, on the behalf of our fellow Christian leaders here. We value our important relationship and the cooperation and good understanding that have long existed between us… We recognize that yours is a complicated and frequently difficult job. … For our part, we salute you today for the responsible work that you do to keep public order, especially during the periods of the various holy days... Your work has ensured the safety and security of so many, we encourage you to continue to maintain the highest standards of professional conduct and decorum in the face of your many and heavy duties. At this new year, may you deepen your commitment to the dignity of your profession as those to whom a great trust has been given.”

The Greek Patriarch concludes with utmost respect towards the Israeli Police: "Thank you... for your role in caring for the heart of Jerusalem, a heart that beats with life for all." It is truly amazing how amicable a state to another state can be in this otherwise violent and cruel world of Palestine.

This article originally appeared in Greek and is reprinted with permission
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