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Jerusalem's Armenian Quarter faces upheaval

Tania Krämer in Jerusalem
July 2, 2023

Armenian Christians are worried about the future of their neighborhood in east Jerusalem's Old City. A shady real estate deal has brought uncertainty to the city's Armenian Quarter.

Members of the Armenian community, including two women, protest holding a yellow sign that reads: We Demand A Report!!!
The Armenian community is looking for answers after reports of a contentious deal that stands to displace residentsImage: Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo/picture alliance

For the past couple of weeks, Hagop Djernazian, an Armenian youth activist, has been one of the organizers of weekly protests in what's known as the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City. The neighborhood is home to around 2,000 Armenian Christians, a community that has been there for hundreds of years.

"We are going through very difficult times. In my opinion this is our last battle, not just as an Armenian community but as Christians," Djernazian told DW. "When I say the last battle, it means we need to protect what we have."

Hagop Djernazian gestures as he speaks
Hagop Djernazian, a Armenian youth activist, is raising awareness about the controversial leaseImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

Djernazian is talking about a shady real estate deal that has shaken many in this tight-knit community to the core and reverberated well beyond the walls of the Old City in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem. Any piece of real estate in the walled Old City, barely 1 square kilometer in size (about 0.35 square miles), is politically important and much sought-after.

The little that is known about the real estate deal is that it involves approximately 25% of the Armenian Quarter. Land located within the Old City walls was leased for 99 years to a commercial entity owned by a Jewish-Australian businessman, to reportedly develop a luxury hotel complex. It mainly involves a large parking lot, one of the few open areas in the densely built ancient city and a prime area for potential real estate. 

'Every week we are finding out new information'

"We have become detectives, every week we are finding out new information," said George Hintlian, an Armenian historian, who describes the developments as "cultural suicide."

A parking lot with a sign in Hebrew and English that reads: Private parking, members only
The large parking lot in the Armenian Quarter has been mapped out with signs by the new ownerImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

In April, residents said, Israeli land surveyors inspected the area and the new owner marked out the parking lot with company signs in Hebrew and English. But residents have since learned that the scope of the lease is much larger and allegedly entails the entire area commonly known as the Cows' Garden. Today, this area houses the Armenian seminary, the homes of several Armenian families, a restaurant, the community's printing press and a cultural hall. 

The lease was reportedly signed by the Armenian patriarch, Nourhan Manougian, the head of the Armenian Christian community in Jerusalem. According to media reports, he has denied any wrongdoing, instead blaming a local priest who headed the real estate department for deceiving him. The now-defrocked priest has since left for the US state of California.

The patriarch is said to be mostly confined to his quarters at the Armenian Convent of Saint James, sources in the community have said. The Patriarchate did not respond to DW's requests for an interview.

Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah II — who is the custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in east Jerusalem — have suspended their recognition of Manougian. This affects his ability to run the community's civil and religious affairs.

Armenian community looking for answers

Meanwhile, the community is looking for answers. Apparently, the deal was done without the oversight of the Armenian synod, a body which oversees the church's affairs. But it is unclear whether this could prove essential to cancel the deal.

Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, dressed in a black robe with a hood, bearded
Since the deal, Patriarch Nourhan Manougian (center) has mostly been confined to his quarters at the Armenian Convent of Saint JamesImage: Andrea Krogmann

"We are all very upset, and we need to do everything to revoke this illegal contract," said activist Djernazian. The 23-year-old said the secrecy and the way that issues were dealt with have broken the trust between residents and some parts of the Armenian clergy.

"We have always warned the patriarch: You can't lease anything, not even for one year. The Greek Patriarchate is the best example — the land will never return to you," he said.

Djernazian is referring to the recent takeover of parts of the Palestinian-run Petra Hotel near Jaffa Gate by an Israeli settler organization. This property inside the Old City, in the neighboring Christian Quarter, was signed away about 20 years ago in an alleged deal with a foreign firm acting as a front for an extremist Israeli settler organization, which wants to see a Jewish majority established in the Old City. Former Greek patriarch Irenaeus I was subsequently ousted after the deal came to light.

In interviews given from the US to media outlets, the demoted Armenian priest, who has denied any wrongdoing, claims the developer is not politically motivated.

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The deal reflects the political sensitivity of the situation in Jerusalem, and one of the core issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Israel captured east Jerusalem — including the Old City — from Jordan after the war in 1967. It later annexed the area and declared the city Israel's undivided capital, in a move that is not recognized internationally. Palestinians seek to establish their own capital in east Jerusalem in any future state. Any major change in the social fabric of the Old City, and every plot of land, has political impact.

Residents have now placed their hopes on a group of lawyers from the US and Armenia who carried out a fact-finding mission in early June. Their report and recommendations are expected to be released soon.

Attorneys sitting at a table speak in the courtyard of the Saint James Convent speak with local residents
US attorney Garo Ghazarian, seen here speaking with local residents, said 'the absolute value in the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem lies in the integrity of all its components'Image: Tania Kraemer/DW

Speaking in the courtyard of the Armenian Convent of Saint James, attorney Garo Ghazarian, of Los Angeles, said "the absolute value in the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem lies in the integrity of all its components … Handing [it] over to some private organization for commercial purpose, we must be mindful of the credible risk of displacement which stands to threaten Armenians who have lived in the quarter since historical times."

For many Armenians, the act of signing away land in the Armenian Quarter has sent the community into uncharted territory. Armenians have long had historical ties to Jerusalem; their ancestors came to the region over 1,500 years ago. After 1915, many more fled to Jerusalem from parts of the former Ottoman Empire where they were threatened with genocide.

Their quarter is the smallest of the four neighborhoods in Jerusalem's Old City and sits next to the Jewish and the Christian Quarters. The Armenian Convent of Saint James is at the heart of this community and its social life, with youth clubs and even its own football pitch. It's right next to the land that has been allegedly leased. Additionally, residents say young Armenians already have a hard time finding housing, and signing away land will just exacerbate the many pressures on the dwindling community.

Land lease will 'change the status quo and mosaic of Jerusalem'

"The lease of the land will change the status quo and mosaic of Jerusalem," warned Djernazian. It comes at a time when the Christian community in Jerusalem has seen an increase in attacks by Jewish Israeli extremists in recent months.

In January, some restaurants in the Christian Quarter were attacked by far-right Israeli extremists. Monks, nuns and priests who live in the Old City frequently report being spat at or harassed, and churches and cemeteries have been vandalized. Church leaders and residents have blamed Israel's far-right government for a culture that rarely prosecutes the culprits.

For young Christians like Djernazian, this makes it even more important to create awareness of what is happening with the land deal in the Armenian Quarter. "For me, this is a joint battle for all Christians, it is not just the Armenians. This should be a joint fight to preserve the Christian presence in Jerusalem."

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Edited by: Cathrin Schaer/Martin Kuebler