Little Petra Hotel affair: The fate of Christians in Jerusalem on the line
by Dario Salvi

The patriarchs and other Church leaders in the Holy Land issued a harsh statement against the threat posed by Ateret Cohanim. They blame the extremist group, which is trying to seize Christian properties, for illegitimate actions, intimidation and violence that undermine peace and justice. The controversy goes back more than a decade, involving the former Greek Orthodox patriarch, who was dismissed as a “Judas”.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – The patriarchs and heads of the Churches of Jerusalem issued a statement expressing their fears in relation to the fate of the Little Petra Hotel owned by the Greek Orthodox Church but claimed by a Jewish extremist group.

The acquisition by Ateret Cohanim of the building in the Christian Quarter threatens the very survival of the Christian community and endangers the peaceful coexistence of the various religious groups that inhabit Jerusalem’s Old City.

In their statement, Church leaders condemn several times the “illegitimate actions" by the group, which follow “a pattern of intimidation and violence”. For the prelates, “Ateret Cohanim has committed criminal acts of break-in and trespass” by “occupying the Greek Orthodox Church's property, the Little Petra Hotel”. The extremists act as “if they are above the law, with no fear of consequences.

“This issue is not about the individual properties, but about the whole Caracter of Jerusalem including the Christian Quarter. The Little Petra Hotel stands on the pilgrim route for the millions of Christians who visit Jerusalem each year. It represents Christian heritage, and speaks of our very existence in this place.

“Israeli radical extremist groups like Ateret Cohanim are already targeting and hijacking our beloved Old City of Jerusalem and imposing their illegitimate and dangerous agenda on all sides.

“We refuse this and we say: this will lead to instability and tension at the time when all are trying to de-escalate and build trust, to build towards justice and peace. Acts of coercion and violence cannot lead to peace.”

A ten-year struggle

On 26 March, some extremists broke into the disputed hotel, which stands near the Jaffa Gate. Once a hotel for pilgrims, it is now at the centre of a long legal battle.

The following evening, police and extremists illegally occupied the first floor of the building even though the dispute over the property has not yet been settled. In addition, the police allegedly arrested three Palestinians and prevented hotel tenants and lawyers from entering it.

A few days later, on 29 March, a large delegation of Christian leaders and Church officials, accompanied by foreign diplomats and Muslim representatives visited the building to show their solidarity. They included Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, the Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton, and Mgr Giacinto Marcuzzo, former patriarchal vicar for Jerusalem and Palestine.

For several years, extremist Israeli groups have been trying to seize properties in the Old City, putting economic and political pressure on Arab Christian and Muslim residents, to get them to sell the land, or find ways to seize their properties.

The Little Petra Hotel case goes back to 2004, when, three foreign private companies, Ateret Cohanim bought Little Petra's first floor and two other properties, the Imperial Hotel and a residential building in the Old City, owned by the patriarchate through. 

This angered the Palestinians and led to the defrocking in 2005 of Patriarch Irenaios, predecessor of Theophilos III.

The Greek Orthodox Church is opposed to the deals, calling them "illegal" and "unauthorised”, and took the case to court. Its petition was rejected on 1 August 2017 by a district court, which led the Patriarchate to file an appeal before the Israeli Supreme Court.

As the  controversy dragged on, resentment has grown among Christians, especially Palestinian Christians, who expressed their disappointment during the Christmas celebrations the following year, with complaints that their land and property were being sold off.

On 10 June 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the Jewish group had legal rights over the three properties obtained through foreign intermediaries. In December of 2019, the Jerusalem District Court challenged the Supreme Court's ruling, suggesting the possibility of a new legal action.

Finally, on 24 June 2020 the district court finally (perhaps) dismissed the Patriarchate’s application, effectively backing Ateret Cohanim’s claim; nonetheless, the top floor is still owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, which leases it to a Palestinian family.

However, the case has scarred the parties. Local Christians are still protesting, and the affair might yet end up once again in the hands of the Israeli Supreme Court.

A divisive patriarch

The Little Petra Hotel, and more generally the issue of Christian properties, led to the removal of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Irenaios, branded by his own flock as a Judas.

In addition to several canonical controversies, he was accused of selling Church properties in Jerusalem. Strong local opposition saw the synod dismiss him in May 2005, a decision confirmed by the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Constantinople (Istanbul).

For weeks, Jerusalem Orthodox protested, while Greece, the Palestinian Authority and the Jordan investigated his work.

The scandal was made worse by the fact that one of the key people who backed Irenaios when he was elected turned out to be a notorious criminal, wanted by law enforcement in various countries. An aide to the former patriarch also fled when accused of corruption and embezzlement.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem dates back to the first half of the 16th century. In 1516, the Ottoman Empire seized the Holy Land and replaced the local Eastern Patriarchate with Greek monks who took over Orthodox buildings and assets.

The monks organised themselves as a religious fraternity, the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, responsible for Greek Orthodox from Greece, excluding local Arab Christians from any position of power or influence.

In addition to questionable personal and financial issues, Irenaios was hostile and aggressive towards other Christians, provoking continuous disputes with the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem and violating the rules on the joint use of the Holy Sepulchre with the Catholic Church.