Dozens demonstrated in the center of Nazareth on Saturday, September 16, protesting the sale of land owned by the Greek Orthodox Church to capitalist developers and far-right settlers. The protesters called for the sales to be annulled and demanded an end to the sale of church lands, especially in Jerusalem, along with the removal of Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III. The demonstrators said the land sales were not only a matter for Greek Orthodox Christians but also a national issue for all Palestinian-Arabs in Israel. Sales of such large amounts of land endanger the Arab Christian population in Jerusalem and throughout all Israel, they said.
The Nazareth demonstration followed an earlier protest by some 300 persons in front of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate building in the Old City of Jerusalem on September 9 demanding the removal of Greek Orthodox Church Patriarch Theophilos III over his alleged role in the sale of church property to settlers. At the Jerusalem demonstration, MK Ayman Odeh said “The people are demanding unity, transparency, and not the Arabization of the church, because the church is already Arab Palestinian. “In the 21st century, we are here to ensure that this is presented as a national cause. We are here to say there are those who aim to transform the conflict from a national one to a religious one. This is a conflict between an illegal occupation and between the people of Jerusalem ‒ Christian and Muslim.”
A week later, some of the demonstrators in Nazareth even called for an end to Greek patronage of the local Orthodox Church. However, the Greek Orthodox Church has yet to show any signs of meeting these demands or deposing Theophilos III. The protesters included Knesset members of Hadash in the Joint List: Aida Touma-Sliman, Yousef Jabareen and Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh. Also taking part in the protest were former mayor of Nazareth, Ramez Jerayssi and leading members of the Communist Party branch in the city.
The most publicized sale of land in recent years occurred when the Greek Orthodox Church sold large swaths of central Jerusalem to private developers. The sale has already caused trouble for large numbers of people living on the land – some of the most valuable in the city – whose leases will expire over the next few decades.
In early August, the Jerusalem District Court approved an agreement for the purchase of three buildings by the Ateret Cohanim Association from the Greek Orthodox Church. The court’s approval of the long-disputed sale, which makes Ateret Cohanim the owner of three buildings in strategic East Jerusalem locations, is considered a significant victory for the far right-wing Jewish settler’s organization. The large size of two of the buildings – the Petra and Imperial hotels near Jaffa Gate in the Old City – will allow Ateret Cohanim to considerably expand its activities there.
In 2005, when the agreement between the Greek Orthodox patriarchate and Ateret Cohanim became known, it ignited an unprecedented firestorm within the Greek Orthodox Church, which eventually led to the dismissal of then-Patriarch Irenaios.