In Nazareth, Christians Protest Sale of Church Land to Private Developers

Dozens of protesters call to remove Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilis III and annul land sales, including several high-profile sales in central Jerusalem

Some of the Arab Christians protesting in Nazareth against the Greek Orthodox Church land sales, September 16, 2017.
Some of the Arab Christians protesting in Nazareth against the Greek Orthodox Church land sales, September 16, 2017.

Dozens of people demonstrated in the center of Nazareth on Saturday, protesting the sale of land owned by the Greek Orthodox Church to private developers.

The protesters called for the sales to be annulled and an end to the sale of church lands, especially in Jerusalem, and the removal of Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilis III.

The demonstrators said the land sales were not only a matter for Greek Orthodox Christians but a national issue for all Israeli Arabs.

Sales of such a large amount of land endangers the Arab Christian population in Jerusalem and in all of Israel, they said.

The Nazareth demonstration followed another protest by some 300 people in the Old City of Jerusalem last week. That protest took place in front of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate building.

The protests expose long-standing tensions in the Greek Orthodox Church in the Holy Land. For years, the Greek Orthodox community in Israel has felt the church prevented its local Arab clergy from reaching senior positions, and the leadership of the church has thus remained firmly in Greek hands. The protesters are demanding that the church make major changes and allow Arab clergy to reach the most senior ranks.

Some of the demonstrators even called for an end to Greek patronage of the local Orthodox Church. But the Greek Orthodox Church has yet to show any signs of meeting these demands or deposing Theophilis.

The protesters included Knesset members of the predominantly Arab Joint List: Aida Touma-Suliman, Yousef Jabareen, Masud Ganaim and party Chairman Ayman Odeh.

The best-known land sale in recent years occurred when the church sold large swaths of central Jerusalem to private developers. The sale has also caused trouble for large numbers of people living on the land – some of the most valuable in the city – whose leases will run out over the next few decades.

The land is leased to the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael), but because of the sale about 1,000 families living in the neighborhoods of Nayot, Talbieh and Rehavia could see their leases end within a few years. The JNF has called the new land owners, Nayot-Komemiyut, “a bunch of greedy land dealers.”

In early August, Jerusalem District Court approved an agreement for the purchase of three buildings by the Ateret Cohanim Association from the Greek Orthodox Church. The court’s approval of the long-disputed sale, which makes Ateret Cohanim the owner of three buildings in strategic East Jerusalem locations, is considered a big victory for the right-wing Jewish organization.

The large size of two of the buildings – the Petra and Imperial hotels near Jaffa Gate in the Old City – will allow Ateret Cohanim to considerably expand its activities there.

In 2005, when the agreement between the Greek Orthodox patriarchate and Ateret Cohanim came to light, it set off an unprecedented firestorm in the Greek Orthodox Church, which eventually led to the dismissal of then-Patriarch Irenaios.