Palestinians protest Greek Orthodox patriarch

Palestinian Christians from around the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Israel came out in harsh opposition on Jan. 6 to a visit by Greek Orthodox Church Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, to the southern West Bank city of Bethlehem. Theophilos III, along with several other religious and political figures, were visiting Bethlehem as part of celebrations for Greek Orthodox Christmas Eve. Despite an intense presence of Palestinian security forces who attempted to open roads near Bethlehem's Manger Square for the patriarch's car, angry citizens swarmed around his procession, holding signs, Palestinian flags, and chanting slogans against Theophilus III. People threw stones and smashed windows of the car the patriarch was riding in as they demanded he be stripped of his titles and be removed from the church.

Theophilos III is accused of orchestrating the sale of more than 500 dunams (123.5 acres) of Palestinian land belonging to the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem to Israeli entrepreneurs belonging to Zionist and settler groups. The protest was not the first of its kind in Bethlehem—visits by Theophilus III to the biblical town have been boycotted in the past.

Heads of the municipalities of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour boycotted the Christmas Eve reception, along with several religious organizations affiliated with the Greek Orthodox Church. The church has been accused numerous times over the years of selling its leasing rights over land in Jerusalem to Jewish Israeli investors, with Israeli financial newspaper Calcalist revealing late last month that the Orthodox Patriarchate had sold the rights to 500 dunams in August 2016 for 114 million shekels ($32 million), a move to be effective in 2050, when the Jewish National Fund's lease of the land is set to expire.

Detractors have accused the patriarchate of contributing to Israeli plans to "Judaize" Jerusalem by selling or leasing off large amounts of land to Israeli authorities and businesspeople, betraying the church's responsibility to protect Palestinian lands that were handed under its care during the Ottoman period. In 2015, a patriarchate spokesperson denied to Ma'an that the church was selling off lands in Jerusalem—a claim that did not convince many members of the faith at the time.

From Ma'an News Agency, Jan. 6

Photo: Ma'an News Agency

  1. Did Theophilos III sell out?

    The last time we noted the controveries around Theophilos III, back in 2007, he had just ascended to learship of the patriarchate, and Israel was refusing to recognize him because he pledged to break with his predecessor's practice of leasing land to Zionist entities. He was even dissed in the Israeli press as the "'no-land-to-Jews' cleric." Did he flip on this question in the years since then?