BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — The Greek Orthodox parish in Beit Jala refused to welcome Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem on Sunday, when he entered Bethlehem for the feat of St. Nicholas and the lighting parish Christmas tree.
Rather than local scout groups drumming in the patriarch, he was greeted with banners announcing that residents did not wish him to enter the city. “You are not welcome in Beit Jala,” one large banner said.
Local officials went so far as to appeal to the area mayor to rescind his invitation to lunch with the patriarch, but were unsuccessful in their appeal.
Beit Jala’s Greek Orthodox community was protesting the participation of church patriarchs and officials in a ceremony organized by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, which marked the re-paving and renovations to religious sites in the occupied West Bank. Church communities saw the move as a sign of continued cooperation between the patriarchy and Israel. One year ago, the Greek Orthodox Church leased land to Israeli developers for the expansion of Israeli-only settlements on lands occupied by Israel in 1967.
Protesting what parish members described as the latest breach of trust between the church and its flock, the leaders of Beit Jala’s Greek Orthodox organizations boycotted a USAID-funded lunch held for all the Orthodox institutes along with the prime minister and patriarch.
During the tree lighting in Beit Jala, a community in the Bethlehem municipality, scout groups played the Palestinian national anthem. When the performance concluded, the scout leader approached the microphone and clarified, “The Palestinian anthem was played for our Prime Minister Dr. Salam Fayyad, not for Theophilos,” the patriarch.
The church-affiliated organizations in the community started an appeal to other Arab Greek Orthodox associations, calling for a larger boycott, an an end to the “religious occupation.”
Palestinian members of the Greek Orthodox Church have complained that Theophilos, who replaced Irenaios I after he was deposed by the church council for leasing Palestinian lands to Israel for settlement construction, has also failed to live up to the promises he made when he assumed the position.
Theophilos said he would annul a deal made by his predecessor which sold church properties near Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem to Israeli settler organizations, start a process to include more Palestinian leadership in the ranks of the church, and work to preserve the Church lands.