Selling Jerusalem: How secret land deals threaten the Armenian Quarter

8 min read
31 May, 2023
In-depth: Residents have voiced anger at the Armenian Patriarch for alleged land sales to Israeli investors in East Jerusalem, which they say could dramatically impact the historic character of the Armenian Quarter.

The reported involvement of Jerusalem’s Armenian Orthodox Church Patriarch, Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, in real estate deals in the Armenian Quarter has provoked outrage in the community and concerns about the erasure of its historic presence.

The deals, reportedly signed by the patriarch, involve the lease of a substantial number of Armenian properties to a Jewish Australian investor.

The land includes the Hadiqat Al-Baqar (The Cows’ Garden) and its surrounding properties, including the Qishla building in Bab al-Khalil (Jaffa Gate), located in the Armenian Quarter.

Reports first emerged of the deal in 2021, when a priest, Baret Yeretsian, the then director of the patriarchate’s real estate department, told Armenian media that land had reportedly been leased to businessman Danny Rubenstein for 99 years.

"It's a huge tract of land. By conceding it, they are erasing the Armenian presence historically, demographically, and culturally"

The priest said that the developer intended to build a luxury hotel in the sensitive area, located between the Armenian and Jewish Quarters, and that the land would then be returned to the Armenian patriarchate after the lease period ends.

In October of that year, 12 Armenian priests alleged that the deal was done illegally without ratification by the Synod and the General Assembly.

A year earlier, in 2020, reports that the Armenian patriarchate had struck an agreement with the Israeli Jerusalem municipality and the Jerusalem Development Authority to turn unused land into a parking lot, mainly for Jewish residents visiting the Western Wall, had raised suspicions about the scope of the deal.

Last month, these fears were heightened when the parking lot in the Armenian Quarter was taken over by a private company called Xana Capital. The land is thought to be part of the location for the purported hotel development.

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The land deals have drawn strong criticism from the Armenian community. Three Armenian clubs in Jerusalem issued a statement last week demanding that the patriarch reveal the details of the contentious lease, revoke the disputed contract, and withdraw from all other promised deals regarding Armenian properties. Manougian has not yet issued a statement about how the sale will affect residents.

“It’s a huge tract of land. By conceding it, they are erasing the Armenian presence historically, demographically, and culturally,” Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian Ambassador to Denmark, told The New Arab. As a Palestinian-Armenian diplomat, he has been acting as a consultant on the issue of leasing The Cows’ Garden estate.

The mishandling of the real estate fiasco prompted both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Jordan to suspend Manougian from his role as the Patriarch of the Armenian Church in Jerusalem on 11 May. In a joint statement, they said that the patriarch ignored demands from Armenian institutions to stop any actions that could affect the historical and legal status quo of these historical sites.

The PA and Jordan asserted that, through his dealings, Manougian, who is responsible for Christian properties in the occupied Palestinian territories and Jordan, violated international covenants protecting the status quo of occupied East Jerusalem and preserving the Armenian Quarter, as well as the religious character of the city.

A man rides a bicycle in front of the Armenian Patriarchate complex in the Armenian Quarter of East Jerusalem on 13 January 2023. [Getty]

The site is an integral part of the Old City of Jerusalem, part of the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967, and to which a number of UN resolutions apply. The Old City is also recognised as part of the endangered World Heritage list, based on several resolutions issued by UNESCO.

Christians, who represent a slender two percent of the Israeli population, face heightened uncertainty due to land deals of this nature, which could result in a significant loss of property and therefore threaten the Christian presence in Jerusalem. 

The controversial move is feared to alter the nature of the Armenian Quarter, which holds cultural and historical significance, and further diminish the Christian presence in the Holy City. The disputed land makes up roughly 25% of the current Armenian Quarter, which itself is about 14% of the Old City.

When members of the community learned about the long-term lease two years ago, they began to mobilise locally to publicly denounce what the Armenian patriarch and his real estate manager had done. Solidarity groups abroad have also supported the Armenian struggle in Jerusalem.

"We're very angry, we feel that we've been fooled. The only way to stop this deal is to reverse the contract in order to protect the Armenian Quarter"

Based on recently leaked information from sources, the plot of land in the deal currently hosts the parking lot, a seminary, five private homes, several shops, and a restaurant named ‘Bourghoulji’.

In the last three weeks, Armenians in Jerusalem have escalated their actions to try to repeal the agreement after they found out that it includes more land than originally thought.

Since the announcement by the PA and Jordan to freeze recognition of the patriarch, every Friday some 200 to 250 residents are holding protests in the square of the Armenian convent compound to decry the patriarch’s involvement in property agreements with Israeli investors, urging a withdrawal of the signatures to lease the lands of The Cows’ Garden.

“We’re very angry, we feel that we’ve been fooled,” Hagop Djernazian, a young Armenian activist in Jerusalem, told TNA, speaking out against the patriarchate. “The only way to stop this deal is to reverse the contract in order to protect the Armenian Quarter.”

The activist warned that the loss of Armenian land would potentially push locals to move out of their homes and force the school and community centres to close or relocate.

“We are fighting for our existence,” Djernazian said, speaking on behalf of Jerusalem’s Armenians.

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Earlier in May, Archbishop Manougian defrocked the Armenian church’s former real estate director amid growing discontent in the community at the role that Yeretsian allegedly played in organising long-term leases of church property to Israeli developers.

The defrocking of Yeretsian was ordered shortly before the Jordanian-Palestinian decision to suspend their recognition of Patriarch Manougian. In response, the dismissed priest addressed a letter to the patriarch reiterating that the sale agreement was signed by the archbishop himself who refused to present it to the Holy Synod meeting for approval.

“It’s going to be very difficult for the patriarch to continue to ignore this pressure,” Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist and media activist, told TNA. “The problem is how much the Armenian population will be affected”.

Efforts to obtain details of the leases and revoke the contracts are also being made at a state level.

Armenian priests walk in a procession circling the Edicule, the place believed to be where Jesus Christ was buried, during Palm Sunday celebrations at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on 25 April 2021. [Getty]

After writing letters to the Armenian Patriarchate in vain, a Palestinian committee led by Ramzi Khoury, the Palestinian Supreme Presidential Committee for Church Affairs, along with a Jordanian delegation, made an official visit to Yerevan in December 2021, where they met the Supreme Patriarch of all Armenians and raised the case.

As a result, a trilateral committee representing the Armenian, Palestinian, and Jordanian governments was formed to work on the file. Last week, the committee held a meeting in Amman to discuss options in seeking access to the land lease contract and the penalty for its cancellation.

Giving up the land has the potential not only to damage the diverse character of East Jerusalem but also to facilitate the expansion of the Jewish Israeli presence in the Old City, as the Armenian district is adjacent to the Jewish Quarter. Israel has long attempted to take over property in the Old City to weigh the demographics of the area in favour of Jewish Israelis.

This is why the PA and Jordan intervened in the matter, since the transfer of any land or properties in Jerusalem could grant Israel the prerogative to claim their ownership, which could, in turn, would modify the Old City’s demographic landscape.

"There is a constant effort by radical Jewish groups to obtain land and property in the Old City. This falls within the Judaisation (of Jerusalem) that's been going on for decades"

Hassassian, who was in charge of the Jerusalem file during the 2000 negotiations in Camp David, argued that any concession of Armenian church land would also “jeopardise” negotiations on a final status agreement regarding the city. Former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat refused to concede the Armenian Quarter to Israel in the Camp David negotiations.

Real estate transactions in the Armenian Quarter are part of Israel’s relentless expansionist occupation of the ancient city. If the Armenian district were to lose a quarter of its land, as is implied from the land sale deal, the Jewish makeup of the Old City would expand in a contiguous fashion from its own quarter to, and including, Bab al-Khalil (Jaffa Gate).

“There is a constant effort by radical Jewish groups to obtain land and property in the Old City. This falls within the Judaisation (of Jerusalem) that’s been going on for decades,” Kuttab said, noting that settler organisations are a driving force behind the many sale deals initiated by Israeli investors, which results in Jews taking over Palestinian properties.

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Palestinian-Armenians in Jerusalem number between 2,000-3,000 in the Armenian Quarter. They are regularly harassed by far-right Israeli extremists in different ways, whether it is spitting, cursing, or pushing over Armenian clergy in the alleys of the Old City.

“We are increasing pressure, trying to corner the patriarch to rescind the lease contract and salvage the land so as to return it to the Armenian community,” reiterated Hassassian, who’s a member of the Armenian-Palestinian-Jordanian committee. “We are willing to cover the costs of the contractual penalty”.

The Palestinian negotiator anticipated that a committee of US lawyers is set to travel to Amman and then to Jerusalem next week to meet the trilateral committee as well as the Armenian patriarch.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec