- By Yolande Knell
- BBC News, Jerusalem
Wearing black peaked headdresses and long robes, a procession of Armenian priests is led along the stone streets of Jerusalem’s Old City by two men in suits, wearing felt tarboush hats and carrying ceremonial walking canes.
Quietly, apart from the beating of the sticks, they parade through the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to pray.
Today, Jerusalem is at the heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. But Armenians have been here since the 4th century, when their country was the first to adopt Christianity as its national religion.
They have a share of the Old City’s holiest Christian sites and their own neighborhood nestled in its southwest corner, where some 2,000 Armenians live.
But today the community feels threatened because of a murky real estate deal carried out by its own church leaders. Amid angry protests, the Armenian patriarch went into hiding and a disgraced priest, who denies any wrongdoing, fled to California.
“It’s like a puzzle. I mean, we’re trying to find out what happened, when and how,” says community activist Hagop Djernazian.
What emerged was that around 25% of the Armenian Quarter was sold on a 99-year lease to a mysterious Australian Jewish businessman for a luxury development.
The land includes a large parking lot – one of the few open lots inside the old city walls – which his company has already taken over. Many Armenians hoped the site could be used to build affordable housing for young couples in their small, declining community.
According to plans viewed unofficially by Hagop and others, an Ottoman-era building housing five Armenian households, a restaurant, shops and a seminary are all part of the sale. Many fear this could affect the viability of living in the neighborhood in the long term.
But the controversy extends much wider.
“This is a historic land that we have owned for 700 years. Losing it in one fell swoop will affect our daily cultural life, but it will also change the image of Jerusalem,” Hagop said. “This will change the status quo, the whole mosaic of Jerusalem.”
As Orthodox Easter celebrations took place in April, panic spread among Armenians. The Armenian Patriarch, Nourhan Manougian, admitted giving away the land, but said he was deceived by a local priest who worked for him.
This priest was defrocked and later there were heated scenes when he was banished from the Armenian neighborhood, escorted under the protection of Israeli police while residents shouted “traitor.”
Recently, many Armenians have joined the weekly protests, linking arms and singing nationalist songs under the window of the patriarch who now remains cloistered in his rooms at the convent. They demand that he revoke the land contract.
“The appearance of the city, its character is changing a lot,” says Arda, who lives in the Old City and complains that religious nationalists already feel emboldened by the drift of Israeli politics.
“Priests walking the streets find settlers spitting on them, people saying they don’t want to see Christmas trees in the city, and restaurants being attacked for no reason. It all goes in a certain direction. ”
Israel captured East Jerusalem – including the Old City – from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War and continued to occupy and annex it in a move that is not internationally recognized . In the decades since, it has been at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, claimed by both sides as their capital. Here, plots of land are hotly contested.
There is a reminder of this near the Armenian Quarter, at the Jaffa Gate – the iconic entrance to the Christian Quarter.
Here, two iconic Palestinian-run hotels were secretly sold to foreign companies acting as fronts for a group of radical Jewish settlers. The Greek Orthodox Church lost a two-decade battle to overturn the deal in Israeli courts and last year settlers moved into part of one of the hotels.
Armenian elders say that in the past, settlers wanted to buy land in their neighborhood and increase the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem. The Armenian quarter is located next to the Jewish quarter, which makes it particularly sought after.
However, a spokesperson for the settler group that purchased the Jaffa Gate properties told the BBC that it had no knowledge of the Armenian land sale.
Meanwhile, in interviews in the United States, the excluded priest, Baret Yeretsian, rejected the idea that the buyer of the land lease – named Danny Rothman but also Daniel Rubinstein in some documents – was motivated by ideology.
Nonetheless, Palestinian Christian leaders say the sale has political implications.
“This undermines any future political solution in Jerusalem,” says Dimitri Diliani, president of the National Christian Coalition of the Holy Land. “According to international law, it is the occupied lands that are the subject of negotiations, which reinforces the illegal presence of settlers in Palestinian East Jerusalem.”
He believes that the “diversity” of Jerusalem will also be seriously affected.
Underscoring the importance of the Armenian Church’s actions, the Palestinian president and King Abdullah II of Jordan – guardian of Jerusalem’s Christian holy sites – suspended their recognition of the patriarch. This affects his ability to attend ceremonies and sign official Church business.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it was aware of the Armenian Patriarch’s agreement, but due to its political sensitivity, it refrains from commenting on it.
Meanwhile, in the fortified courtyards of the Saint-Jacques convent – which has sheltered many Armenian families since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and has its own clubs, school, library and even a football field – all we talk about is That.
Relations are tense between residents and members of the clergy, who act as religious and civil authority here. On Friday, dozens of Jerusalem Armenians gathered to hear from a group of visiting international Armenian lawyers who agreed to develop recommendations on how to handle the case.
Nearby, in his ceramics studio, Garo Sandrouni paints glaze on an ornate bowl, wondering what the future holds.
He belongs to one of the families who brought the colorful tradition of Armenian pottery to Jerusalem a century ago, when they fled what is widely seen as a genocide by the Turks.
He says Armenians have historically donated money to buy land in this holy city – their spiritual homeland – and the Church has no right to sell it.
“This is what makes us angry. These lands belong to the Armenian nation. They do not belong to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem,” he told me.
“The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem must take care of these lands, conserve them, preserve them, protect them.”