Patriarch Theophilos III of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem has defended the church’s decision to sell land. This comes in the wake of reports that settlers are trying to take control of the church’s property.
Almost 1,500 years ago, the Greek Orthodox Church began a presence in the Holy Land. Its mission is to continue the original Christianity. The church’s lands span from the Jaffa Gate to the Holy Sepulchre. The church’s holdings include holy places and buildings, shrines, cemeteries and agricultural land. The church’s portfolio is thought to be the second-largest in the world.
In 2007, the Greek Orthodox Church’s Patriarchate won recognition from Israel. The Church claims that the Patriarchate is the mother church of all Christians in the Middle East. It is supported by the Greek government. But the politics of the Middle East continue to make the Patriarchate’s role more difficult.
In August 2015, a revelation in Israel’s Channel 2 showed that the church had signed an agreement to sell land in Caesarea, a Palestinian town near the Sea of Galilee. The deal involved a Greek official and a settler group called Ateret Cohanim.
Among Jerusalem’s largest religious institutions, the Greek Orthodox Church owns property throughout the city. Its property portfolio includes buildings, shrines, and agricultural land. It also owns lands in the West Bank.
According to reliable news sources, the church’s portfolio includes more than 20,000 acres. Many of the properties are located in the city’s central neighborhoods. These include Rehavia, Talbiya, and Nayot.
According to reports, the Greek Orthodox Church has done about two dozen major land deals in recent years. Many of these deals are contested by local residents, including Jewish and Muslim residents of Jerusalem. The church has been accused of selling land to foreign companies, and the deals have attracted a lot of attention.
The church also sold land in the beachside cities of Jaffa and Caesarea to companies from the Caribbean. The church claims these deals are necessary to generate income and pay back debt.
Conflicts with settlers
Patriarch Theophilos III is the Patriarch of Jerusalem and all Palestine. The church is backed by the Greek government. The Orthodox Patriarchate is the custodian of several Christian holy places, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
In the Old City of Jerusalem, the Greek Orthodox church has been the oldest Christian presence. Its leadership is composed of ethnic Greeks and Arab Christians. The church is also the second largest land owner in Israel.
There have been multiple attacks against the church. Hardline settlers are aggressively acquiring property in the Old City. The city council is considering expropriating church land to private developers. The church is also facing unprecedented tax demands.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is also facing pressure from the Israeli government. Last year, Israel imposed harsher restrictions on Bethlehem pilgrimage. It limited access to 120 Gazans. It also imposed a limit of 200 Christians over the age of 55.
Attempts by settlers to take over Christian properties
Attempts by settlers to take over Christian properties in Jerusalem and the West Bank are threatening the Holy City’s delicate balance of religions. Christian leaders and the European Union have voiced their concern over the trend.
A settler group called Ateret Cohanim has acquired several properties in Jerusalem’s Old City. In one of the more high profile cases, Ateret Cohanim bought two large buildings from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in 2004. The church has argued that the transaction was a scam. The current Patriarch Theophilos III has said the process was corrupt. The church has also argued that the sale was done without the knowledge of the Patriarchate’s board of trustees.
Meanwhile, a group called Peace Now has campaigned against Jewish settlement in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem. The group says the Jewish settlement could change the character of the Old City and make it less diverse.
Patriarch Theophilos III’s defence of land sales
Patriarch Theophilos III is facing an uphill battle in his defence of land sales in the Greek Orthodox church in Jerusalem. Anger over recent land deals indicates a wider discontent among Orthodox Palestinian Christians.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate owns large swaths of land in Jerusalem. Traditionally, the church owns three-quarters of the Old City, which is considered the birthplace of Jesus. In recent years, the church has been accused of selling property to Jewish and Israeli groups to facilitate expansion of Jewish settlements. The church says these deals are needed to pay back debts.
The Greek Orthodox Church has faced repeated accusations of corruption. In 2007, a real estate appraiser discovered a series of suspicious land sales in the church’s Jerusalem diocese. Real estate appraisers said the amount paid for the transactions was far below market value. However, the deals were not publicly announced until a few years later.