New York, NY
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem as well as other churches in the Holy Land face a crisis that could lead to the disappearance of the Christian presence in the very lands where Christianity began.
"This is a major problem that needs international attention," warned Dr. Anthony J. Limberakis, National commander of the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, adding that the issue centers on property ownership and efforts to confiscate much land.
"We are not picking a fight but are rather trying to save Israel from being pushed into a self-damaging position by extremists," said Archon Patrick N. Theros, an expert on Middle East affairs. He served in the U.S. Foreign Service for 36 years including as ambassador to Qatar and as director of the State Department's counterterrorism office. Theros also represents the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, headed by Patriarch Theophilos III, in the United States.
The Patriarchate of Jerusalem and all the other churches in the Holy Land depend on the real estate holdings for their existence and to support missions.
Government institutions, however, hold very cheap long-term leases on properties obtained from the Churches in the early days of the State of Israel. Now the Churches want fair market value but instead are facing new legislation that with slight amendment could let the government confiscate the leased properties.
"On a separate track an extremist organization, Ateret Cohanim, is trying to grab church property in the Old City by all means fair and foul as part of an attempt to drive out the non-Jewish populations," Theros noted. Ateret Cohanim is considered an extremist Israeli settler organization with a history of securing East Jerusalem properties and then harassing the Christian and Muslim neighbors. The organization fraudulently obtained a power of attorney from the then Patriarch Irineos and used the document to secure 198-year leases of five valuable pieces of properties around Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate, the primary entrance to the Christian holy sites.
Israeli Journalists discovered the fraud and Jerusalem's Holy Synod went to court to nullify the leases. Ateret Cohanim, however, delayed the court process for twelve years until a sympathetic judge heard the case. That judge ruled against the church, ignoring evidence that the leases had been obtained through fraud. The Patriarchate has appealed. There is concern if the Church loses the appeal that Ateret Cohanim would continue past practices, using the Jaffa Gate properties to make it impossible for Christian clergy, worshippers and pilgrims to access Holy Sites.
Theros believes there is little doubt that the Israeli government disapproves of the proposed legislation to confiscate the leased properties but explains that the government depends on a seven-party coalition and that one defection would bring it down. The forty cosponsors of the bill belong to several coalition parties.
"Equally worrisome, the Israeli government has rarely disciplined Ateret Cohanim, seeing it as a useful tool to prevent Palestinian access to any part of Jerusalem," Theros added.
All the Churches in Jerusalem, unified for the first time in hundreds of years, denounced both the proposed legislation and the Jaffa Gate case and are demanding that the government restore the rule of law. The Heads of Churches and Patriarchs of Jerusalem, under the leadership of Patriarch Theophilos, are rallying the worldwide leadership of Christianity. Patriarch Theophilos has already visited the Vatican, Canterbury, Constantinople and Moscow, all of which have made it clear that they find the Israeli action an unacceptable threat to the Christian presence in Jerusalem.
The land issue goes back decades. The Jewish National Fund and other Israeli Institutions hold long-term leases of vast tracts of Church property in Israel, Occupied Territories, Jerusalem and Gaza. In Rehavia, one west Jerusalem property leased from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Jewish National Fund subleased land to the Jewish State and private developers. Israel built its Knesset (Parliament), the National Museum and the President's residence on the leased land. The lease, signed in 1951 expires in 2050. The Patriarchate will not foreclose on Israeli public buildings when these leases expire but does want to receive market value on the privately developed parcels. The Patriarchate tried to legally do so on the Rehavia property recently in question, but was frivolously fined tens of millions of dollars as a result of their action. In 1999, an Israeli court jailed two persons acting on behalf of the Jewish National Fund for forging the then Patriarch's signature so as to extend the leases. Now the Jewish National Fund has found another way to get the properties -- by proposed legislation that with slight amendment could allow the Israeli government to confiscate any leased property held by any church and to set the compensation, all without recourse.
Archons must join the effort to protect the holy sites in Jerusalem where Christianity began. All the Churches of the Holy Land depend on real estate to provide the major source of revenues that maintain more than 600 holy sites ranging from one-monk monasteries to the Church of the Resurrection which houses the Holy Tomb of Christ, as well as schools and charitable institutions. Our friends in the American Jewish community have much to gain from speaking out against the injustices thatthreaten the Christian presence in the Holy Land.