Palestinians hold signs during a demonstration. Image Credit: AP

Occupied Jerusalem: Palestinian Christians have protested against the Greek Orthodox patriarch of the Holy Land, demanding the resignation of Theophilos III for allegedly selling church land to Israelis.

Some 200 demonstrators rallied Saturday outside the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Occupied Jerusalem’s Old City. Some raised banners reading “Theophilos is unworthy”.

The church is one of the largest real estate owners in the Holy Land. It is dominated by Greek clergy while the flock is overwhelmingly Palestinian.

Activists have presented documents they say show the patriarch sold land in sweetheart deals. They demand that the church open its books and that the patriarch resign.

Last month, about 300 Palestinian Christians and lay groups filed a complaint against Theophilos with the Palestinian attorney general, accusing him of “selling land to the enemy”.

The buying up of Palestinian property in occupied Jerusalem has prompted activists to warn of serious threats to the demographic composition of occupied Jerusalem in the near future.

Recently, the Israeli-run District Court in Occupied Jerusalem upheld three real-estate deals between the Greek Orthodox Church and Ateret Cohanim, a colonist group seeking to boost Jewish numbers in occupied Jerusalem.

The group has been highly effective in obtaining Palestinian properties through an orchestrated campaign of trickery and fraud — even properties owned under “protected tenant status”.

Protected status was issued to families under Ottoman rule to guard against arbitrary eviction and has been applied for three generations.

In the current court case, Ateret Cohanim claimed to have bought New Imperial and Petra hotels, just inside the Jaffa Gate, as well as Al Azamia House, inside Bab Al Huta, in 2004, owned by the Greek Orthodox Church.

Ateret Cohanim approached the District Court to obtain a judgement after the Greek Patriarchate refused to recognise the legality of the three real-estate deals, arguing they were signed under fraudulent circumstances.

The deals were signed under Patriarch Iranaios, who was dismissed in 2005 and demoted to the status of a monk.

Iranaios said his former finance director, Nikolas Papadimos, used power of attorney to sign the agreements without his knowledge and vowed to appeal the verdict.

The Greek Orthodox Church owns around 56 per cent of properties in the Old City while other Christian churches own 24 per cent — the majority of which are in prime and strategic proximity to the holy Muslim site, Al Haram Al Sharif.

“Whoever owns these properties will be able to control the movement of Muslim worshippers,” Khalil Tafakji, who heads the Maps Department at Orient House, told Gulf News.

Tafakji said the problem started when the Greek Orthodox Church began leasing properties to Jewish organisations on renewable 99-year contracts, which opened the door to selling properties.

The church not only sold properties in Occupied Jerusalem but also in Jaffa, Haifa and Qisaryah.

Atallah Hanna, Archbishop of Sebastia, from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Occupied Jerusalem, slammed the actions of certain Christian Waqf property owners.

“Their actions do not represent the church or its respect for the identity and heritage of the holy land,” he said.

He called for protests outside the entrances of targeted properties to challenge colonists trying to enter them.

Israel occupied Jerusalem during the 1967 War and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.

Since then, Palestinians say that Israel has been conducting a systematic campaign against Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem, including banning Palestinians from burying their dead in specific parts of Bab Al Rahma cemetery, a resting place for many of the city’s historic figures.

They also have removed Arabic signage from many streets replacing them instead with Hebrew signs in an attempt to Judaise the city and erase any Palestinian or Muslim identity.

Israeli rarely issues building permits for expanding families and routinely demolishes Palestinian homes in occupied Jerusalem.

It has also tacitly encouraged far-right Jewish groups to raid Al Haram Al Sharif, the third holiest site in Islam.

Jews are allowed to visit Al Haram Al Sharif, but not perform religious rituals there, according to a long-standing status quo agreement. Attempts by Israel’s regime to change the status quo have led to escalating violence and tensions which have claimed the lives of more than 210 Palestinians and 33 Israelis.

Israel’s regime took over Al Haram Al Sharif and the entire eastern part of Occupied Jerusalem and annexed it during the 1967 Middle East war, but left the Jordanian Waqf Department to administer and run the Muslim holy sites in a historic status quo agreement which governs access to the holy shrine.

Ongoing incursions by Jews on Al Haram Al Sharif premises have been the largest instigator of violence since last year.

Al Haram Al Sharif site houses Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

The status of occupied Jerusalem is among the most sensitive issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel sees all of Occupied Jerusalem as its undivided capital, while the Palestinians view Occupied East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.