Jerusalem: Armenian Christians fight controversial land deal

Armenian men building barricade
Image caption,Protesters building a barricade in the Armenian Quarter

By Yolande Knell

BBC News Middle East correspondent

While Christmas may be a distant memory for many, the Armenians of Jerusalem only just held their annual celebration on 19 January.

This year, the holiday was overshadowed by the war in Gaza and the ongoing threat to the survival of the community from a deeply controversial real estate deal.

Many spent the day in an unconventional fashion, joining a sit-in at a tent in their church car park, which is part of a large plot at risk in the Armenian Quarter of the walled Old City.

“This illegal, treacherous land deal actually brought us all together,” says Setrag Balian, a ceramicist turned activist.

Armenians date their presence in the holy city back to the 4th Century. Many of the 2,000-strong community live inside the large, cobble-stoned compound of St James Convent.

In the past, they have often been divided by political differences and family fights and there have been rifts between Jerusalemite Armenians and their Church leaders who act as employers and landlords for many.

Yet for two months, local Armenians and priests have all been staying in a large, improvised tent here, around-the-clock, to try to block the development going ahead. They eat here and work shifts as guards behind a makeshift barricade decorated with Armenian flags.

Together, they say, they have seen off attacks by contractors with bulldozers, armed settlers and masked thugs.

  • Controversial land sale angers Jerusalem Armenians
  • Jerusalem Christians say attacks on the rise

“Everything was put in danger with this deal,” Setrag says. “Whoever wants to take away our rights and endanger our presence and our lives here, we will stand up against them and defend our rights till the end.”

Last April, facts began to emerge about a 2021 contract secretly signed between the Armenian Patriarch and a Jewish Australian-Israeli developer. It gave a newly-created firm, Xana Gardens, a 98-year lease to build and operate a luxury hotel in an area known as the Cow’s Garden.

The deal covered a plot of 11,500 sq m, abutting the ramparts of the south-western corner of the Old City, with an option to take over an even bigger area.

It includes the car park, some church buildings and the homes of five Armenian families, accounting for about 25% of the Armenian Quarter.

Located on Mount Zion, it has huge religious significance and is incredibly valuable real estate but an annual fee of just $300,000 (£237,000) was to be paid by the developer.

Exterior of makeshift tent
Image caption,Local Armenians and priests have been staying in an improvised tent on the land as they protest against the deal

“For that amount you could barely rent yourself a couple of falafel shops in the Old City,” commented one Armenian using the car park, who asked for his name not to be used.

Amid heated protests by locals and a decision by Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to withdraw their recognition of the patriarch over his role in the deal, pressure grew on the Church to cancel the contract.

Meanwhile, an international team of Armenian lawyers came to investigate and give advice.

The patriarch claimed he had been tricked by a trusted priest who was later defrocked. He finally announced a formal move to cancel the deal in October.

At that point, tensions between Armenians and representatives of the developer – whose workers had forcibly taken over the car park – began turning into direct confrontations.

When Israeli bulldozers arrived at the contested site to try to begin demolition, Armenians rushed to block it. The next month, there were claims of intimidation as the developer arrived with several armed men.

Further attempted incursions came after the protest tent was set up. The most violent was last month when masked men came to the car park beating people with sticks and using tear gas. A priest, Father Diran Hagopian, broadcast events on Facebook Live.

“They were shouting, ‘you should go out from this land’,” he later told the BBC. “One of their leaders was shouting: ‘You can break their legs, you can even kill them, but they should leave.'”

The apparent involvement of known Jewish settlers in attacks alongside other evidence has increased long-held suspicions that a powerful settler organisation is involved in the attempted land takeover.

Aviv Taparsky
Image caption,Aviv Tatarksy, from Israeli non-profit organisation Ir Amim, says settler organisations want to “Judaise” the Old City

Ever since Israel captured the Old City and its holy sites from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War, Jewish investors in Israel and overseas have sought to buy properties to try to cement Israeli control over occupied East Jerusalem.

Palestinians want this part of the city as the capital of their hoped-for future state. Jewish Israelis view the whole of the city as their eternal, undivided capital.

Researchers at the Israeli non-profit organisation Ir Amim, which is focused on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and supports the diversity of Jerusalem, are worried about developments in the Armenian Quarter.

“This is close to sensitive places,” says Aviv Tatarksy. “Creating a settlement in this area is part of very far-reaching aims of settler organisations who basically want to Judaise completely the Old City, with their eyes on the Temple Mount or al-Aqsa Mosque.”

The settlements built in occupied territory are seen as illegal under international law, although Israel disagrees.

The BBC has contacted the developer behind Xana Gardens several times but not heard back.

The now-defrocked American priest who coordinated the deal, Baret Yeretsian , was surrounded by a mob of angry young Armenians shouting “traitor” as he exited St James Convent last year, assisted by Israeli police, before moving to Southern California.

He has since denied to journalists that the developer has any political or ideological agenda, describing such accusations as “propaganda” based on his Jewish identity.

The Armenian Church has now begun proceedings through the Israeli courts to challenge the validity of the contract for the Cows’ Garden.

As locals gathered around a brightly lit Christmas tree in their makeshift tent last week, they remained resolute but were aware that their legal fight could easily take years.

Whether incursions can be stopped in the meantime remains to be seen.

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