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Christian Palestinians protest Orthodox land sale

January 6, 2018

The arrival of Greek Patriarch Theophilos III in Bethlehem was the center of a protest against church land sales to Jewish groups. Some townships had called for a boycott of the midnight mass attended by the patriarch.

Israel Besuch des Patriarchs Theophilos III | Protesten in Bethlehem
Image: Reuters/M. Qawasma

Hundreds of Palestinians protesting the sale of church land to Israelis clashed with police on Saturday as they attempted to block the arrival of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem in Bethlehem for Orthodox Christmas celebrations.

Protestors banged on the sides of police escort vehicles and threw stones and water bottles at Patriarch Theophilos III's black limousine while chanting "traitor, traitor," but the patriarch made it through the crowd to the Church of the Nativity for the Orthodox Christmas Eve observance.

Read more: Subdued Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem after Jerusalem violence

Theophilos joined heads of the Syrian and Coptic Orthodox churches in the ancient church, which Christians believe marks the birthplace of Jesus, the Official Palestinian news agency WAFA reported.

The Greek Orthodox church is one of the biggest private landowners in the Holy Land and has caused controversy among Israelis and Palestinians by attempting to sell prime assets to private investors.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III arrives at the Church of the Nativity for midnight mass.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III made it through the protest for Christmas celebrationsImage: Reuters/M. Torokman

Read more: Silent night, holy night? How the Middle East conflict overshadows Christmas in Bethlehem

Palestinians are against the sale of land to Jewish and Israeli groups and consider it to be an act of treason.

"We do not want this man"

"Today we stand here to prevent the entry of the traitor Theophilos," Salama Shaheen, an activist of the Arab Orthodox Youth movement, told AFP.

"We do not want this man. This man must be brought to trial because he betrayed the homeland, betrayed the church and betrayed every human principle," he added.

Some Israeli lawmakers want to stop the deals, which they fear could lead to large increases in real estate prices.

Read more: Orthodox Holy and Great Council calls for protection of Christians in Mideast

Church officials have said they need to sell land to pay back years of debt. Previously, the church had only been leasing out the land to residents on long-term contracts.

Most Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7 rather than December 25 because of differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars.

Boycott of midnight mass

The Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala municipalities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank had called for a boycott of the midnight mass attended by the patriarch.

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas's office told AFP he would attend and a number of official invitees were there to welcome Theophilos III, WAFA reported.

The mayor of the Christian town of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, earlier said he wanted Theophilos removed from his post over the controversial land sales.

"Our move today is a protest against the patriarch over the sale of land of the Orthodox," mayor Nicola Khamis told AFP.

The church elected Theophilos in 2005 after dismissing his predecessor Irineos over an alleged multi-million-dollar sale of church land to Jewish buyers. But Khamis said the practice still happens.

"Theophilos ignored all the demands and continued selling this land even if the [Christian] majority is against it," he said.

law/rc (AFP, Reuters)