Bethlehem Christians boycott Greek Patriarch over Land Sales

31/12/09

Bethlehem – Ma’an – Thirteen Greek Orthodox Christian leaders met in Bethlehem Wednesday and voted unanimously to boycott the reception of the denomination’s Patriarch Theophilos III for the 6 January Christmas celebrations.

Officials and scouts affiliated with the groups under the 13 and those they represent will not receive the Patriarch at the Mar Elias Monastery or meet him at the entrance to Bethlehem at Israel’s Checkpoint 300 for his procession to the Nativity Church.

The decision came as a result of a meeting in the Orthodox society headquarters in Bethlehem, following local leaders’ dissatisfaction with the patriarch’s unrealized promises to rectify issues of land sales to Israel that saw the previous patriarch sacked.

The former Patriarch Irenaios I was voted out of the position in 2005 by the Brotherhood of the Holy Sephruchle, of which he had been the head. The congregation in Jerusalem had been increasingly angered by the sale of church land to the state of Israel, much of which was private Palestinian land given to the church in trust before the 1967 war which saw Israel occupy the West Bank and annex East Jerusalem.

The Church owned land on which the Knesset and Israeli Prime Minister’s residence are built. And under Irenaios, land from the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem as well as land next to Mar Elias were sold to the State of Israel. In October 1999 the church signed an agreement with a British developing company allowing construction of neighborhoods linking the Israeli settlements of Har Homa and Gilo.

The Pan-Orthodox Synod voted to support the decision in May 2005, and in August Theophilos III was unanimously elected as the replacement. He was confirmed by the governments of Greece, Israel the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

Head of the Orthodox institutions council Marwan At-Toubasy told Ma’an the decision to boycott came in response to the refusal of Theophilos III to abide by the promises he made to the Palestinian National Authority when they agreed to confirm their support for him as head of the Jerusalem Church.

According to At-Toubasy, the incoming patriarch had promised to work on nullifying the land deals his predecessor had made. He was also accused of failing to comply with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate Law No. 24 of 1958, which stipulates that in order to be approved by the Jordanian Crown, Church officials must be Jordanian Citizens.

Spokesman for the Orthodox Church Father Issah Musheh called the decision to boycott a “personal issue,” and assured Ma’an over the phone that the celebration of Orthodox Christmas would continue as usual.

At the time Theophilos was confirmed by the government of Jordan, and issued a statement promising to serve the church and support the Palestinian people.

At-Toubasy said the boycott is a direct response to the deal made this year around the lands of Mar Elias. Accusations launched at the patriarch in April were that he leased 71 dunums of land belonging to the monastery to an Israeli construction company for 99 years. From the deal the church would get 100 apartments.

The congregation only found out about the lease, according to an interview from the Jordan Times with Amman-Orthodox Society Bassem Farraj, when a lawsuit was filed between two Israeli investors, one who had been leased more than 700 dunums of land belonging to the church under Irenaios I, and the second developing the land leased by Theophilos III.

When Palestinian and Jordanian Christians demanded information on the deal, the Patriarchate said the deal was the only way they could develop the land and said the apartments would serve the congregations of Palestine.

At-Toubassy also said Theophilos refused to respond to attempts by the Palestinian Authority to cancel deals made under his predecessor.
In June, the office of the patriarch announced that it was able to stop an Israeli move to confiscate church property around Mar Elias for road construction

The group of 13 Bethlehem leaders said they would inform President Mahmud Abbas, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Bethlehem governor Abdel Fattah Hamaiel, and the mayors of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour about their decision.

The meeting was attended by: Fouad Al-Bandak, Ibrahim Jaber, George Zeneh, Elias Es’eed, Na’eem Ayyoub, Ghassan Daoud, Khader Kokali, Marwan Tubasi, Fouad Skafy, Odeh Bishara, Khader Abu Abbara, Azmy Juha, and Michael Freij.

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