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Who Else Occupies the Holy Land?

posted on: Feb 21, 2018

By: Bishara Bahbah/Arab America Contributing Columnist

It is high time that another occupation of many parts of Jerusalem and other areas of the Holy Land end! I am referring to the occupation of the Greek occupation of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. The Greek church leaders in control of the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem have been selling or leasing lands and properties to Israel, Israeli investors, and Jewish-owned entities using shadow companies registered in tax haven countries.

Palestinian Orthodox Christians are saying, NO, NO WAY!

A protest against the visit of Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III to the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Photo Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP

A document by the Orthodox Central Council, shown to the Washington Post, reveals that at least 20 tracts of land or properties in the Holy Land were either sold or leased over the past 10 years for an estimated value of $101 million that the Greek oversees of the church collected. (Ruth Eglash, “Palestinian Christians Tangle with Greek Orthodox Church over Holy Land Properties,” Washington Post, 23 December 2017). 

The Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem is presumably the second largest landowner in Israel after the Israeli government.  It is controlled by a Synod of mostly Greek citizens who behave as though church properties belong to them and are free to dispose of lands and properties at their leisure.

Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land estimated to number around 400,000, constitute the largest Christian denomination in the Holy Land.  The majority of them are Palestinian Christians who condemn the church’s behavior and accuse it of doing the least among all other Christian denominations for their flock.

The current Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem, Theophilos, admitted that he had no choice but to sell or lease land held by the church.  He claims that the church needs the revenue to finance day-to-day church business in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Qatar – the territorial jurisdiction of the church. The patriarch claimed that the church needed the funds to pay off debts left over from bad real estate deals executed by his predecessors. In some cases, he admitted being pressured by the Israeli government itself into selling properties or leasing them cheaply. He also stated that in other cases, the Israeli government blatantly expropriated those lands and properties.

The actions of the church have infuriated Palestinian Orthodox Christians who believe that the lands and properties do not belong to the Greek Synod but rather to the followers of the church. Palestinians believe that the church, whether under duress or willingly, is disposing of lands and properties that belong to the community of followers – Palestinian Orthodox Christians –  and that not one parcel should ever be sold or leased to the Israelis.

So, what are the options for the Palestinian Orthodox Christians?

One, they can accept what the church leadership is doing and limit their objections to protests against the church – effectively do nothing and accept the corrupt status quo.

Two, find another custodian of the church’s properties. The custodians could be the government of Jordan which is the custodian to the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem. The second potential custodian could be the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch in Constantinople which is based in Istanbul. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (the new Rome), Bartholomew I, is the spiritual head of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians or the Eastern Orthodox Church. He is considered to be the (first among equals) within the 14 Orthodox church jurisdictions worldwide.

Third, Palestinian Orthodox Christians should consider toppling the current, largely Greek, Orthodox leadership (Synod) in Jerusalem and rename the church as the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. The faithful would then elect a new Synod and install a Palestinian Orthodox Christian as the patriarch of the newly named and Palestinian-controlled Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. For the record, I have nothing against Greeks – I am personally part Greek. I have a major issue with corrupt Greeks who do not put the interest of the church and their Palestinian flocks first and foremost.

The final option and, the more realistic one, would be for the local Orthodox Christian community to force or put significant pressure on the existing church leadership to implement significant reforms by demanding that:

  • 11 of the 20 church Synod members be Palestinian Orthodox Christians;
  • Force the patriarchate to open its files and books and become transparent even if it means filing a lawsuit against the patriarchate in either a Palestinian or a Jordanian court;
  • Require an annual audit of the patriarchate’s finances and properties; and
  • Demand a significant increase in the funds that are used to support the local Christian Orthodox community by building schools, hospitals, housing, and homes for the elderly.

Just about everyone in the Palestinian Christian Orthodox community knows of the corruption, the self-enrichment, and the immoral and scandalous behavior of many of those who currently occupy the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

Until when should the Palestinian Orthodox Christians wait to rid themselves of the Greek occupation of their church?  Palestinians don’t want either an Israeli or a Greek occupation to control their lives, properties, let alone their church.


Prof. Bishara Bahbah 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. 

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