Bethlehem – Ma’an – A group of prominent Greek Orthodox Palestinians threatened on Wednesday to split from their church over the sale of West Bank land to Israel.
Marwan Toubasi, the deputy minister of tourism and the organizer of a protest movement, made the pronouncement at a news conference in Bethlehem’s Manger Square on Wednesday, as Orthodox Christians marked Christmas Eve. Leader of the Greek Orthodox Club of Beit Sahour Dr Elias Isaid, however, said a split from the church was "unrealistic."
"Today's demonstration is the start of our action against the patriarch," Isaid commented, and if the concerns of the Palestinian parishes are not met, "we are prepared to declare the patriarch a persona non grata in Bethlehem."
Approximately 300 protesters rallied in Manger Square, holding signs condemning the actions of the patriarch. "The Holy Land is not for Sale or Lease," one banner said, "Theophilos = Irenais" said another, likening the new patriarch to the sacked former leader he replaced.
Those protesting were part of the Council of Arab Orthodox Institutions and Organizations in Palestine, representing 19 groups across the country. Greek Orthodox Palestinians are angry over promises made by the patriarch in 2005 when he was appointed, centering on the creation of a more consultative process that includes Palestinians and Jordanians in an effort to prevent further long-term land leases to Israeli developers.
Scout bands welcomed the Syrian and Coptic patriarchs into Manger Square with much fanfare, but packed up their drums and bagpipes ahead of the arrival of Theophilos. Silence filled the square ahead of his arrival, broken by a car from the partirach's office blaring Christmas music, which drowned out the boos of protesters.
Theophilos was walked in to the church surrounded by officials and a cordon of riot police, who linked hands and formed a human barricade between the booing protesters and the patriarch.
Protest supporters shouted condemnations at Theophilios, saying he failed to implement a pledge to reverse past sales, and angry accusations over recent land deals. Church land has been used to build Israeli settlements, including Har Homa and Ma’aleh Adumim, the protesters say.
"We are starting the demonstrations against the patriarch now," said Isaid.
A PLO official recently told a Greek newspaper that the land deals were "treacherous agreements made with the Patriarchate which are contributing to the cutting off of East Jerusalem and Bethlehem from the Palestinian hinterland."
The Council of Arab Orthodox Institutions also asked the Palestinian Authority to intervene and nullify the land sales.
The Greek Orthodox make up the largest denomination of Palestine’s Christian minority.