Purported land sale in Armenian Quarter will damage Christian presence in Jerusalem

Jordan, PA freeze recognition of Jerusalem Armenian patriarch as residents face uncertain future

 The Armenian Quarter parking lot in Jerusalem's Old City. (photo credit: Courtesy Hagop Djernazian)
The Armenian Quarter parking lot in Jerusalem's Old City.
(photo credit: Courtesy Hagop Djernazian)

A large portion of the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City has been sold to a Jewish developer in a move that could erase the centuries-old Armenian presence in the city and further squeeze the Christian minority in Israel.

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Though details of the deal remain unclear, the Armenian Quarter parking lot was taken over two weeks ago by a private company, Xana Capital.

The Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian has yet to issue a statement or answer residents’ questions about how the sale will affect them. When contacted by The Media Line, a spokesman for the patriarchate said that until all the information was verified internally, he would not make a public statement.

The reports began trickling in from 2021 when former priest Khachik Yeretzian—then director of the patriarchate’s real estate department—told an Armenian news outlet that the patriarchate in Jerusalem had indeed leased the land to Danny Rubenstein, a Jewish businessman from Australia, for 98 years and that Rubenstein intended to build a luxury hotel on the property.

After that time, according to the 2021 article, Rubenstein would return the land along with the hotel to the Armenian Patriarchate.

 THE ARMENIAN monastery compound in the Armenian Quarter. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS) THE ARMENIAN monastery compound in the Armenian Quarter. (credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

The deal was signed in July of that year. In October, 12 Armenian priests in Jerusalem signed a statement condemning the sale and alleging that it was done illegally since it was not ratified by the Synod and the General Assembly.

“The agreement also disregarded the unified General Assembly’s ratification which thrice voted (2002, 2006, and 2015) that ‘agreements covering a period of one to 25 years should be ratified by the Holy Synod and agreements for 25 to 49 years be presented by the Holy Synod to the General Assembly for ratification,’” the priests said in 2021.

The Holy See of Jerusalem is a pan-Armenian asset, and it has been under the attention and care of all Armenians for many centuries,” the priests continued. “This sacred heritage must be handled with the utmost care and responsibility, always upholding the charter of the Holy See so as not to undermine its centuries-old course and pass it on to future generations.” Nevertheless, the deal moved quietly forward until the new owners claimed the parking lot in April.

On May 6, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem defrocked Yeretzian, the former real estate manager, in a unanimous decision of the Synod “for his disloyalty and especially the series of frauds and deceptions he committed regarding” the sale. That was the extent of the statement.

In his own letter, Yeretzian said he was punished “for an act that the patriarch signed and now I am being accused.”

“One day the truth will be revealed,” he said in the letter. Recent rumors, however, indicate that the deal includes far more land than originally thought including private homes, shops, and part of the seminary casting a pall of uncertainty over the residents and business owners in the area in question.

The land under dispute, once known as the “Goveroun Bardez” (an Arabized corruption of the Armenian for “Cow Garden”) and now the Armenian Quarter parking lot, is roughly 8 acres in size. This constitutes a quarter of the current Armenian Quarter, which itself is about 14% of the Old City.

Jerusalem Land Grab

On Wednesday, after it became known that Yeretzian was planning to leave the country, dozens of Armenian residents blocked him from exiting his house. Eventually, police were called in to escort the former priest outside the St. James Convent to an awaiting taxi followed by shouts of “traitor” from the protestors. He was spotted on a plane to Turkey on Thursday morning.

Land transfers in Jerusalem are delicate and can potentially upset the status quo. And they are frequently wrought with controversy. Greek Patriarchate property near Jaffa Gate was sold to an Israeli “land redemption” organization, Ateret Cohanim, in 2004. After an 18-year legal battle, the sale was recently upheld.

The issue is not simply religious between Christians who own the land and Jews who are trying to buy it. It is also political. Israel wanted the Armenian Quarter as part of a final status agreement in the Camp David negotiations. Israel might have it anyway, demographically speaking. Should the Armenian Quarter become home to Jewish housing, the Jewish presence of the Old City will expand contiguously from its own quarter to and including Jaffa Gate.

On Thursday, the Palestinian Authority and the Kingdom of Jordan announced a decision to freeze their recognition of the Armenian patriarch. In a joint statement, the two said that Manougian “took real estate measures and deals that would affect the future of the Holy City, without consensus and consultation with the relevant parties, and without the involvement of the Synod and the general body of the St. James Brotherhood.” “Patriarch Manougian’s dealings constituted a clear violation of relevant international covenants and decisions, which aim to preserve the status quo. In Jerusalem and protecting the authentic Jerusalemite Armenian heritage,” the statement read. The Hashemite kingdom is the custodian of Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Dimitri Diliani, a Palestinian Christian and activist in the Fatah party, told The Media Line that giving up the land destroys the mosaic character of the city and “undermines any possible solutions as it infringes on the status-quo arrangement that has kept the city for many years.”

Diliani said the patriarch should be deposed.

“The damage that this deal has done to the Armenian Quarter is grave and I believe that the patriarch has been disloyal to his people, to his church, to his mandate, and to the Christian character of Jerusalem,” he said. “These are grave violations to the trust that he should have upheld and the only thing I can think of that could be the beginning of finding a way to retrieve these properties is having him ousted as soon as possible.”

What Will Christian Residents Do?

Christians—who represent just 2% of the Israeli population—are feeling the squeeze. Since the time of Jesus, Christians have lived in the land and as Christianity developed into different institutions and denominations, patriarchs were tasked to preserve their presence and care for the needs of the community.

George Sandrouni, a veteran member of the Armenian community, said the bleeding of Armenian properties began 70 years ago with previous patriarchs, but it was not stopped then. He accused the leaders of failing to shepherd the flock assigned to them. Without available church-subsidized housing, young people in the community will be forced toconsider emigration.

 “Eventually all the houses we live in will be leased out for 99 years and we will be in a situation that is not livable in Jerusalem,” he told The Media Line. “If we keep on losing future properties, our existence in this city is totally at stake,” he said.

But he also insisted that it wasn’t enough to remove Yeretzian.

“He’s the mouse, but the rat is still at home,” he said, referring to Manougian. “What is done cannot be reversed. The only thing we can do is clean out the house, keep it sterile and prevent further meltdown.”

Hagop Djernazian is only 23, but he is planning his future in the quarter and will fight for that. “We have deep roots here in the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem. We are the only nation that has a quarter in Jerusalem so we must protect this place,” he told The Media Line. “This is home. We have many communities in the diaspora, but it’s not the same as here in Jerusalem.” With rights in the Holy Sepulcher alongside the larger Catholic and Greek Orthodoxdenominations, the Armenians contribute to protecting the status quo, Djernazian noted. “Without the Armenian presence, the Christian presence is way more endangered,” he said. An Israeli scholar on Christianity said having no Christians “would be a disaster for Jerusalem.” “When you say this is the city of the children of Abraham, it needs to have representatives of all religions,” Yisca Harani told The Media Line. “All of these instruments play together anincredible concert. We have to protect each and every instrument. Israel has to protect its indigenous inhabitants.”

History of Armenians in Jerusalem

The Armenian presence in Jerusalem stretches back to 90 BCE, but the establishment of the quarter occurred after the nation of Armenia declared Christianity its national religion in 301 CE. After that time, citizens began making pilgrimages to Jerusalem to see the holy sites. These pilgrimages became the basis of the Armenian Quarter today. The ancient land is under the supervision of the Armenian patriarch, who is autonomous and not under the auspices of the Armenian Apostolic Church headquartered in Vagharshapat, Armenia.

Today, fewer than 1,000 Armenians reside in Jerusalem; up to 6,000 live in Israel and the Palestinian territories. While Armenians living in Israeli or Palestinian cities tend to identify politically with the societies in which they reside, many in Jerusalem consider themselves first and foremost Jerusalemites. Jerusalem-born Armenians are permanent residents of Israel but not all are citizens.

The quarter provided refuge for Armenians fleeing the genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire which resulted in the slaughter of 1.5 million people. St. James Convent is the heart of the quarter and home to private residences, a school, a library, two social clubs, and a museum that is open to the public. Across from the museum is the parking lot in question.

In an eerie parallel, the nation of Armenia is also watching its boundaries being chipped away by Azerbaijan on one side, Turkey on the other, and a monthslong blockade on 120,000 ethnic Armenians living in an enclave called Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh.