Bahbah: Palestinian Orthodox Celebrate Christmas Under Greek Occupation
By: Bishara A. Bahbah/Arab America Featured Columnist
Written from Bethlehem
This week’s Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem for the Orthodox Christian community took place under heavy security, a boycott by the local political leaders, and non-violent protests by those who oppose the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and Qatar.
According to various historical documents, the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem owns close to 7 percent of historic Palestine – making it, effectively, the second largest landowner in historic Palestine behind the Jewish National Fund, the designated owner of lands under Israel’s jurisdiction. The Greek Orthodox Church also owns over 35 percent of the entire Jerusalem area.
The issues that have boiled to the surface over the past three decades have been:
1. Christians in Palestine, the vast majority of whom are Palestinian are not considered the rightful owners of Church properties.
The church’s claim that it solely owns those lands and the vast properties built on some of them. Christians in Palestine, the vast majority of whom are Palestinian are not considered the rightful owners let alone the custodians of church lands and properties. The church is controlled by a Synod made up of 20 individuals, 18 of whom are Greek nationals. The Synod elects the Patriarch and claims total ownership of church properties.
2. The Greek clergy of Jordan and Palestine maintained control of church land which they claimed as the property of the Greek nation.
Following the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the increased interest of Zionists in immigrating to Palestine and eventually building a Jewish state, early Zionists began making deals with the Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem (owned by the Greeks) in order to buy or, at the very least, lease for 99-year periods church properties in some of the strategic areas of Palestine, especially in Jerusalem. Unlike other church properties in the vast Ottoman Empire, church lands in Palestine and Jordan were not returned to their national entities.
3. The land deals between Israel and the Greek Patriarchate have angered Palestinian Christians who oppose the collusion of church leaders with the state of Israel.
Greek church leaders have been leasing or even selling lands to Israeli investors and Jewish-owned entities, using shadow companies. Such deals have mushroomed over the past two to three decades. In fact, it is believed that over the past 10 years alone, at least 20 tracts of land or properties in the Holy Land were either sold or leased to the Israelis for an estimated value of $101 million. (Click here to read the article entitled, Who Else Occupies the Holy Land?, by Bishara Bahbah, posted on Arab America, February 21, 2018.)
4. Some of the major conditions of Theophilos III’s approval by the Palestinians and Jordan was his commitment that he would cancel the deals with Israel made with his predecessor and a commitment not to sign any deals with Israel.
The current Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is Theophilos III and was elected to his position after the former Patriarch was deposed after having been accused of gross mismanagement of the Patriarchate in Jerusalem and, most importantly, of selling or leasing church lands to Israel, often well below their market value. The rules of the ascension of a new patriarch dictate that Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan have to all approve whoever is selected. Some of the major conditions of Theophilos III’s approval by the Palestinians and Jordan was his commitment that he would cancel the deals with Israel made with his predecessor and a commitment not to sign any deals with Israel without the approval of the joint Palestinian-Jordanian committee.
5. As land deals with Israel have been uncovered since 2006, Palestinian anger against the Patriarch has reached a boiling point.
The Greek Patriarchate’s reaction to these accusations have been initial denials of any land deals followed by admission of those land deals with Israel then justification of those land deals. Initially, the deals were 99-year lease agreements, then it became outright sale.
The most egregious land deal with Israel involves the renewal of a 1950/1951, 99-year lease made with the Jewish National Fund. It involves some 528 dunums (4 dunums = 1 acre) in West Jerusalem. Israel tried to renew the lease in the year 2000, well before its 99-year expiration. It turned out that the deal involved the forging of the Patriarchate’s signatures and seals. Even though the deal was canceled after it was proven that the documents were forged, Patriarch Theophilos III agreed to sell those lands outright claiming that the deal had no political or religious significance. However, when looking under the hood, it became clear that that was a flat lie because those 528 dunums included land on which the Israeli Knesset is built, the residence of Israel’s president, the Israel Museum, the railroad station, public parks, and hundreds of prime residential properties worth conservatively hundreds of millions of dollars.
Worse yet, the 1950/1951 lease stated that after the end of the 99-year lease period, both the land and whatever is built on it reverts ownership to the Greek Patriarchate.
To add insult to injury, the Orthodox Patriarchate has shared very little of what is owned by the church with the local Orthodox Christians. The parcels of land granted to Palestinian Christians or sold to them does not even constitute one-tenth of one percent of what the church owns. It is believed that there are tons of other deals that have been made with the Israelis that have yet to be publicly uncovered.
Given all the above, Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land no longer view the Patriarch or the Synod as legitimately representing them and, as such, should be deposed and evicted. During last year’s Orthodox Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem, which fell on January 6, 2018, the Patriarch was pelted with eggs by his parishioners. On the eve of January 6 of this year, the mayors of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour (Shepherds’ Field), and Beit Jala refused to receive the Patriarch as has been the case for decades. The local scout troopers refused to celebrate with the Patriarch and his procession consisted of tens of armed Palestinian policemen and the Palestinian President’s personal guards. It was a humiliating sight for the Patriarch who still seems unphased with all the opposition within the ranks of the majority of Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land.
When Bethlehem should have gloriously celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, it was tense and gloomy having to receive a Patriarch who has sold his flock and abandoned his duties toward what belongs to the church and the Palestinian Christians. At this rate, it might be a matter of time – years and not decades – before the entire composition of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem will be forcibly altered and new church leadership will emerge that shoulders the proper, honorable duties toward its parishioners and its agreements with both the Palestinian and Jordanian authorities.
Prof. Bishara Bahbah was editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem based “Al-Fajr” newspaper between 1983-84. He was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security. He taught at Harvard and was the associate director of its Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.