Greek Orthodox Church decries 'extremist' takeover of hostel in occupied East Jerusalem

Greek Orthodox Church decries 'extremist' takeover of hostel in occupied East Jerusalem
The Greek Orthodox Church has branded an attempted takeover of a hostel in Jerusalem by Israeli settlers as 'illegal' and condemned the actions of the extremist group.
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Israel's Supreme Court claimed that a settler organisation had bought the building in 2004 [Getty]

Greek Orthodox Church leaders on Tuesday denounced what they called the "illegal" takeover by Israeli "extremists" of a Jerusalem hostel operated by Palestinians

It said members of the settler organisation Ateret Cohanim broke into the property in occupied East Jerusalem on Sunday, in addition to a neighbouring money change shop, and received Israeli police protection despite possessing no eviction notice.

In 2019, Israel's Supreme Court concluded that the settler organisation Ateret Cohanim had legally bought the hostel, along with two other nearby buildings, from the Greek Orthodox Church in a controversial and secret 2004 deal. The church has long denied this and legal wrangles continue.

Ateret Cohanim works to "Judaise" Palestinian East Jerusalem by purchasing real estate through front companies and then moving Jewish settlers in.

"Acting in this illegally aggressive manner against a known Christian property and an Arab business -- particularly ahead of Easter and Ramadan -- could likely ignite local hostilities," the Church said in a statement Tuesday.

It added that Theophilus III, the patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, has been consulting with the heads of churches in the city over the issue. 

"The patriarch requests that the police act to evict Ateret Cohanim... until the ongoing legal proceedings conclude and are finalised."

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Daniel Luria, the executive director of Ateret Cohanim, said his group was not involved in any legal proceedings and would not comment on a case in the courts. 

"Even if we were part of any court proceedings... we would never act contrary to any court ruling or act illegally," he told AFP. 

Medhat Deeba, an attorney representing the Palestinian Qiresh family that runs the hostel, said that members of the Israeli organisation had taken over one of two sections of the property. 

"They didn't give the residents an eviction notice, and they broke in illegally," he said. 

The hostel is in the Old City of East Jerusalem, which Israel seized in 1967 and later annexed in a move that has never been recognised by most of the international community. 

The Greek Orthodox Church is the largest and wealthiest church with extensive land holdings in Jerusalem dating back centuries. 

It has faced repeated accusations of corruption and facilitating Israeli settlement expansion on its properties.

When the 2004 deal was revealed, the Church faced widespread Palestinian anger that led to the 2005 dismissal of Patriarch Irineos I.

Since then, the Greek Orthodox Church and the tenants have attempted to reverse the sale. 

Settler takeover of property in Jerusalem often sparks violent flare-ups. Last year settlers backed by Israeli courts attempted to expel Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Israeli law allows Jewish citizens to reclaim property allegedly owned by Jews in East Jerusalem prior to Israel's founding, but Arab citizens do not have recourse to such processes. 

Protests against the Sheikh Jarrah forced displacements helped fuel a bloody 11-day war last year between Israel and the Islamist movement Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip, which left 250 Palestinians dead including dozens of children.