Christian presence in Holy Land under existential threat, says Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem following increased pressure over controversial land deal

JERUSALEM — The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem issued a statement appealing to all Christian communities in the city to rally behind the Armenian Patriarchate, emphasizing the need to safeguard the Christian presence in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

The Patriarchate released the statement as tensions over a shady land deal made in July of this year and cancelled by the Patriarchate shortly thereafter, increase amidst the backdrop of the intensified Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza and increased settler violence in the West Bank.

The statement expressed concern that, rather than addressing the cancellation through legal channels, the Patriarchate’s legal position was disregarded. The response instead involved provocative actions, aggression, and other disruptive methods, including the destruction of private property.

Highlighting recent events, the statement noted the unauthorized destruction of a significant area within the Armenian Quarter. Despite lacking permits from the municipality or police, the Armenian community voluntarily evacuated the affected area.

In light of these challenges, the statement called upon all Christian communities in Jerusalem to stand in solidarity with the Armenian Patriarchate during these difficult times. The appeal stressed the importance of avoiding actions that could jeopardize the Christian presence in Jerusalem and the broader Holy Land.

Members of the Armenian community in Jerusalem protest against a controversial real estate deal in July 2023. (Image: Maya Alleruzzo / AP Photo)

Cancelled Land Deal and Defrocked Priest

In July 2023, a controversial real estate deal was struck involving approximately 25% of the Armenian Quarter within the Old City walls. A 99-year lease was granted ostensibly by the Patriarchate to a commercial entity owned by a Jewish-Australian businessman. The leased land includes a large parking lot, a significant open space in the densely built ancient city, and holds cultural and community landmarks such as the Armenian seminary, homes, a restaurant, a printing press, and a cultural hall.

The lease was reportedly signed by Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, who is now facing accusations from the community for his involvement. The community is deeply troubled by the lack of transparency surrounding the deal, and there are allegations that the Patriarch was deceived by a now defrocked local priest who headed the Church’s real estate department. The Armenian Synod, which oversees the Church’s affairs, claims the deal was done without its oversight, further adding to the controversy.

The situation has political implications given the sensitivity of Jerusalem in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Old City, including the Armenian Quarter, is a focal point for political and cultural struggles, and any significant changes in its social fabric can have far-reaching consequences. Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II have suspended their recognition of the Armenian Patriarch, affecting his ability to manage the community’s civil and religious affairs.

The residents are now hoping for intervention from a group of lawyers from the US and Armenia who conducted a fact-finding mission. The community fears that the land lease could lead to displacement, impacting Armenians who have lived in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem for centuries and exacerbating existing pressures on the dwindling community. Additionally, the controversy comes at a time when the Christian community in Jerusalem has experienced increased attacks by Jewish extremists, adding another layer of concern for the preservation of the Christian presence in the city.