Templer Descendant Prepares to Fight Jerusalem for Her Home

Anahid Ohannessian, 55, has lived since birth in a 19th-century building on Emek Refaim.

On the corner of Emek Refaim Street and Bethlehem Road in Jerusalem stand several huge, venerable pine trees. In 1992, during one of Jerusalem's memorable snowstorms, one of the pines fell, and its rings could be counted. It was determined, unequivocally, that the trees are 95 years old.

It was Anahid Ohannessian, 55, who counted the rings. She has lived since birth in a 19th-century building among the pines, now slated for demolition.

The trees were planted by the German Templers, the builders of the German Colony in Jerusalem, and Ohannessian is a member of the capital's small Armenian community, which inherited the beautiful building on the corner and turned it into a church.

The building next to the church, where Ohannessian lives, once housed the community's caretaker and later its laundry. It is to be demolished to make way for an eight-story hotel, the Colony.

In his book about the German Colony, Jerusalem architect and historian David Kroyanker says that the community used the building for weddings, funerals, prayer services and political gatherings. The Palestine branch of the Nazi Party held its meetings there.

During World War II, the British Mandate government expelled the Templers as enemy aliens. After the war, with East Jerusalem cut off from West Jerusalem, the small Armenian community was left without a place of prayer, and in response to a request by the Armenian patriarch, Israel gave him the small German community center as their church. The caretaker's home was given to Anahid's parents, who had to leave their home in Baka during the fighting, and the couple because the church caretakers.

Since then, time seems to have stood still in the complex. Ohannessian lives in the house by herself with two dogs and a cat. Although the spot is one of the busiest intersections in the capital, there is not a neighbor for hundreds of meters around.

Ohannessian lived peacefully in the house until, a few years ago, she found out the building and land had been bought by a real estate developer, who plans to put up an eight-story hotel on the site.

Based on an oral agreement with a clerk in 1949, Ohannessian pays no rent. "It was clear to me that one day, someone would tell me to go. I decided that I'm not leaving. I'll make things as hard as I can for them."

The Armenian Patriarchate says the Templers were illegally expelled by the British, and their heirs, who today live in Australia, are the legal owners of the land. The Armenians say they received permission to use the building decades ago, as part of the reparations agreement with the German government in the 1950s involved Israel's paying the German government for the Templer real estate assets in Israel.

"Ohannessian is a protected tenant and cannot be removed," says Joseph Avneri, the attorney representing the Armenian Patriarchate. He adds: "We won't let the church be harmed. They only use the synagogue in Prague a few times a year, so does that mean they can build a hotel on it?"

Avneri also intimated that an agreement had been reached between the real estate developers and the neighborhood administration, which has fought the hotel project. He says the administration withdrew its objection to the hotel after the developers agreed to give the community center to them for public use. The administration denies the claim, but says that thanks to its objection, the hotel project has been greatly reduced.

The head of the Germany Colony's neighborhood administration, Shaike el-Ami, says it is in the neighborhood's interest that "a building built as a community center continue to serve its original purpose."

Ronen Tzur, a spokesman for Colony, the company building the hotel, says: "The developers view reaching an agreement with the residents as paramount. Based on information that has reached the developers from the authorities, the church never had rights to the property except users' rights. The place did not serve as a church but rather as a community gathering place. Therefore, these claims are surprising, to put it mildly."

"What I care about is not only that my home is in danger and my entirelifestyle is in danger, but also that this plan will change the whole neighborhood. It won't be the same neighborhood," Ohannessian says.