11/17/2023, 15.43
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Armenian Patriarchate in settlers’ crosshairs, Christians 'in danger' in Jerusalem

A plot of land in the Cows’ Garden area is at the centre of the controversy. The group of settlers also includes a radical who was involved in a past terror attack and is close to Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. In a press release, Armenian Christian leaders say that "unprecedented" threat puts at risk the very presence of the community and of all Christians in the Holy Land.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – In recent days, extensive "destruction" and "removal" of asphalt in the Armenian Quarter has been carried out "without the presentation of permits from the municipality by neither by the builder nor the police". Yet, the latter demanded “that all members” of the community "vacate the premises", this according to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

In an appeal asking for the solidarity of the Churches in the holy city, the Patriarchate says that, “in these unprecedented times”, a “clear step [was] taken toward the endangerment of the Christian presence in Jerusalem and in the Holy Land.”

In the press release, Church leaders say their community faces “the greatest existential threat in its 16-century history,” which affects everyone and is linked to a controversial issue of land and property.

Recently, the Armenian Patriarchate "cancelled a contract tainted with false representations, undue influence, and unlawful benefits.” However, “Instead of providing a lawful response to the cancellation,” the company that wants to build in the area known as the "Cows’ Garden" has "completely disregarded the legal posture of the Patriarchate toward the issue”.

The developers have opted “for provocation, aggression, and other harassing, incendiary tactics, including the destruction of property, the hiring of heavily armed provocateurs, and other instigation" that involve a group of settlers with links to Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

According to some sources in the holy city, this shows the approval, if not the complicity or full support of the Israeli government to the claims and attacks by the Jewish settlers and ultra-Orthodox factions.

The fears of Armenian Church leaders have been fuelled by the latest in a long series of attacks in recent months against the Christian community, from spitting on worshippers in procession to vandalising cemeteries and places of worship, with the support of the Israeli government.

In a post on X (ex-Twitter), local attorney and activist Daniel Seidemann reports that police ordered the Armenians to vacate the area at the centre of the dispute, accusing them of " misappropriation of property”.

Since last Sunday (12 November), a large group of Armenian residents, supported by the patriarchate, have rallied and blocked access to the area with cars and fences, to prevent any further illegal construction on the Armenian property.

Despite this, a convoy of Jewish settlers in cars and motorcycles drove into the East Jerusalem neighbourhood, trying to occupy the area and drive out those present.

Faced with a tense situation that threatens to get worse, the police intervened in defence of the settlers, ending up arresting three Christians, one of whom is a minor, and allowing a small group of trespassers to remain at the "Cows’ Garden".

In response, Armenian residents formed a human shield, in vain asking the settlers to leave as tensions remain high in the area.

Controversial businessman Danny Rothman and Saadia Hershkop, a supporter of the pro-settlement and occupation movement, lead the settler group involved in the case. Hershkop, who is said to have ties to Ben-Gvir, played a role in the 2005 terrorist attack against Palestinian Arabs in Shefa-Amr by the Jewish extremist Eden Natan-Zada.

The Armenian community in the Holy Land has long been at the centre of a controversy over the sale of land in the Old City of Jerusalem, which has already created a deep internal rift.

The clash began over a 99-year lease, a de facto expropriation, to an Australian Jewish entrepreneur with a murky business empire, who has been working behind the scenes for some time.

Baret Yeretzian, the "treacherous" priest who mediated and signed the deal, is a former real estate director of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and is now in "exile" in Southern California.

He was aided and abetted by Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, Archbishop Sevan Gharibian and Daniel Rubenstein (none other than Danny Rothman), who plans to build a luxury hotel in the area.

The affair tainted the patriarchal office as well, with the Armenian primate losing the confidence of the community, with some members calling for his resignation, while Jordanian and Palestinian authorities have de facto "frozen" his authority.

The affair broke out last May, but the contract was signed in great secrecy in July 2021 and provides for a lease of almost a century in "Cows’ Garden" (Goveroun Bardez).

Located near the Armenian Quarter, in a strategic location, the area has been managed by the municipality since May 2021 as a parking lot for those who go to pray at the Wailing Wall.

The contract dates back to the previous year and is valid for a decade, but its use by Jews has provoked the wrath of Armenians who have been fighting since 2020 to return to full possession of it.

Recent archaeological excavations have also unearthed mosaics from a Byzantine church.

In addition, the agreement – criticised by Palestinians who see it as a sellout of Jerusalem land to the Israelis – may not even be valid because it lacks the approval by vote of the Armenian Synod (eight ecclesiastics) and the go-ahead of the Fraternity of St. James of the Armenian Patriarchate.

The contract also covers four Armenian houses, the famous Boulghourji restaurant, businesses and Tourianashen buildings on Jaffa Street, outside the old city.

The controversy has even impacted the Abraham Accords because one of the companies interested in buying and building is One&Only, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE).

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