Palestinian protesters attacked the convoy of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem as he arrived in Bethlehem for Christmas mass. Palestinian Christians demonstrated against the church's decision to sell land to Jewish groups amid accusations of corruption in managing church-owned land.
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Patriarch Theophilos III entered the city on the way to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity under heavy protection by Palestinian security forces after hundreds of protesters tried to keep him out. Demonstrators threw stones and water bottles at the convoy and pounded his car with their fists, chanting "traitor" before Palestinian security forces pushed them away. Three cars in the convoy – but not the patriarch's vehicle – had their windows smashed.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Bethlehem and is expected to attend mass, which will take place just before midnight. Abbas, however, will not participate in the traditional dinner with the patriarch, as per the demands of many among the Christian community to boycott the patriarch's activities.
"What happened today is a message to the Palestinian Authority and to Jordan that we will not allow this traitor to stay in the Church," said Elyeef Sayegh, one of the demonstrators.
Al-Maydan TV reported that Israel threaten to forcefully intervene and provide the patriarch with protection for his arrival in Bethlehem. At the end, Palestinian security forces brought the patriarch into the city in an unmarked vehicle as opposed to the usual honorary convoy in which he arrives.
The Greek Orthodox church is one of the biggest private landowners in the Holy Land and in recent years has stirred controversy both among Israelis and Palestinians by trying to sell prime assets to private investors.
Israeli media has reported that the controversial deals include properties in East and West Jerusalem, as well as in the port cities of Caesarea and Jaffa. They identified some Jewish and Israeli investors as potential buyers.
Church officials have said they need to sell land in order to pay back debt that has accumulated over the years. Until now the church has been leasing out the land to residents on long-term contracts.
Members of the Greek Orthodox community in Israel and in the West Bank say that church land should not be sold and that it must be used for the good of the community. Additional accusations against the patriarch include corruption, which critics claim led to the especially low price of the properties sold.
Among the properites that have sparked controversy are three large buildings in the Jaffa Gate area of Jerusalem, which have been sold to Ateret Cohanim through a shell company registered abroad. This deal was made during the tenure of the previous patriarch, Irenaios, who was removed from his position due to the controversy. According to protesters, the current patriarch has not done enough to cancel the deal. A request by the patriarch to back out of the deal is pending in the Supreme Court.
Some Israeli lawmakers are trying to block the deals that they fear could lead to large increases in real estate prices. Palestinians oppose the sale of land to Jewish and Israeli groups and consider it an act of treason.
The demonstrators were Christians from Bethlehem, Nazareth and other cities inside Israel.