Determined community advocacy combined with legal help from Armenians in the diaspora opens the possibility of canceling a secretive land deal that would give an Australian Jewish developer control of one-quarter of the area of the Armenian Quarter.
After nearly two years of diplomatic efforts, pressure from local and international Armenians, and a weekly protest vigil, the Armenian Patriarchate, which had signed a 98-year lease to an Australian Jewish developer that would have meant the loss of nearly one-fourth of the historic Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, has finally decided to take steps to cancel the controversial deal it signed to lease church property to the Jerusalem municipality and an Australian Jewish developer.
The problems began when the Jerusalem municipality claimed it wanted to help the Armenian residents of the Old City of Jerusalem with the lack of available parking (a few years ago, the city had taken the parking lot used by the Armenians who live in the quarter and turned it over to Jewish use for visitors to the Western Wall). Converting a land plot (Goveroun Bardez, or Cows’ Garden) into a parking lot required a lot of money. The city offered to lease the land and do the work; in return, the Armenian Patriarchate, which owned the land, would get a number of free parking spaces and a cut from the revenue from residents parking their cars at the location.
Palestinian ambassador to Denmark and Jerusalemite Manuel Hassassian was concerned that something was afloat. He told Jerusalem Story, “I smelled a rat.” He was right.
The parking lot project was part of a larger deal through which the municipality and an Australian Jewish developer, Danny Rothman of Xana Capital Ltd., would secure a 98-year lease (the developer initially went by the name Danny Rubenstein). The area to be leased, according to the website Keghart, includes “Goveroun Bardez, five homes, the Patriarch’s Garden, the Patriarch’s private parking as well as the hall of the seminary. It covers 25 percent of the Armenian Quarter. In effect, all of the western part of the Armenian Quarter.”1 The plot lies between the Armenian Quarter and the Jewish Quarter.
The plan was to turn the parking plot, the nearby seminary, and a restaurant into a luxury hotel. The Patriarchate was scheduled to make a lot of money from the sale and $300,000 annually thereafter. The contract also granted the right to use unspecified “adjacent lands.”2
Community Uproar and Pushback
Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian took the unusual clerical step of defrocking his former deputy and former head of real estate, Baret Yeretsian.3 The Armenian priest left the convent hurriedly and had to seek the help of the Israeli police as local Armenian protestors wanted to search him for relevant documents before allowing him to leave. Like the Patriarch, Yeretsian has a US passport and has since traveled to California. He has always insisted that everything he did was at the orders of the Patriarch, who signed the final land deal; Yeretsian insists that his signature of the controversial deal was merely as a witness. Photographs provided by Yeretsian depict the signing ceremony, featuring Rothman, Yeretsian, Patriarch Manougian, and the Patriarch’s deputy, Archbishop Sevan Gharibian.
When the news of the lease deal was made public in September 2021, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority suspended their recognition of the Armenian Patriarch, saying that the land lease was a change of the status quo of the Old City of Jerusalem, which is a UNESCO-protected heritage.
For the residents of the Armenian Quarter, the lease of one-fourth of the historic land in the Old City was unacceptable. A weekly vigil and protests have taken place every Friday at the Armenian Quarter. An international legal team headed by the well-respected American lawyer Karnig Kerkonian came to Jerusalem and visited Amman, Jordan, to prepare for a lawsuit in an attempt to cancel the deal. The lawyers were able to secure a copy of most of the 21-page contract (one page is missing as well as annexes) and subsequently issued a 184-page legal analysis of it.
The leadership of the Church was totally silent, except for the defrocking of Yeretsian and the synod belatedly saying that they knew and approved of the sale.
The main Armenian clubs in Jerusalem and Amman all issued statements of support for the protestors. Armenian Church leaders also called the Jerusalem Patriarch to inquire and offer support as needed. Armenians around the world were involved in Armenian media as well as on social media. Local Jerusalem heads of churches also put out statements opposing the controversial land deal.
Armenians in Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter number between 2,000 and 3,000.4 They are routinely and increasingly harassed by far-right Israeli extremists.5 This is despite their centuries of history in the city.
A Jordanian Palestinian delegation traveled to Yerevan, Armenia, to seek support from that country.
The effort to save the Armenian Quarter has been met with unprecedented Jordanian and Palestinian cooperation on all levels.
“We are increasing pressure, trying to corner the Patriarch to rescind the lease contract and salvage the land so as to return it to the Armenian community,” Ambassador Hassassian, who is also a member of the Armenian-Palestinian-Jordanian committee, told the London-based New Arab website. “We are willing to cover the costs of the contractual penalty.”6
Legal Proceedings Launched
The protests and the legal research came together in October 2023. Although they had to wait because of the events in Gaza, on October 31, the activists who created a Facebook page called Save the ArQ community revealed that legal proceedings have been filed in an Israeli court to annul the controversial sale.
Sonia Kelekian, one of the activists in the Save the ArQ movement, went on social media to acknowledge fellow Armenians Jack and Zarig Youredjian, who helped to fund the legal effort; lawyers Karnig Kerkonian and Garo Ghazarian, who are taking on the case; and the young community activists Setrag Balian and Hagop Djernazian.
The Armenian Patriarchate put out a statement on November 1 confirming that it had in fact submitted documents to the Israeli courts on October 26 requesting the cancellation of the deal.7
The decision of the Patriarchate to cancel the deal is the first step in what is likely to be a lengthy process to attempt to reverse this through the Israeli court system.
“Lawyers Acquired Illegal Land Lease Contract Despite Stonewalling Patriarch,” Keghart, July 29, 2023.
“Lawyers Acquired Illegal Land Lease Contract.”
Daoud Kuttab, “Armenian Patriarch Defrocks Barett Yeretsian[;] Jordan and Palestine Withdraw Recognition of the Patriarch,” Milhilard, accessed November 8, 2023.