Land dispute in Jerusalem threatens Armenian Christians, nonviolent group says

Jan 11 2024

For the past two months, 33-year-old Kegham Balian, an Armenian Christian, has spent a significant part of his days and nights in a tent in a parking area known as “Cows’ Garden” in the southeast corner of the Old City of Jerusalem. He expects to spend his Christmas there, which the Armenian Apostolic Church in the Holy Land celebrates on Jan. 19 along with the Epiphany. 

The tent is a permanent outpost established by the “Save the Armenian Quarter” (ArQ) association, founded by Hagop Djernazian and Setrag Balian (Kegham’s younger brother). It is a nonviolent movement created to defend properties of the Armenian Patriarchate from being taken over by Xana Gardens Ltd., a real estate company with alleged links to Israeli settler interests. 

Kegham Balian is an Armenian with the “Save the Armenian Quarter” (ArQ) association, founded by Hagop Djernazian and Segrat Balian, the younger brother of Kegham. It is a nonviolent movement created to defend some properties of the Armenian Patriarchate. Credit: Marinella Bandini

In the last two months the Armenians have suffered seven or eight attacks by people Balian says were sent by Xana Gardens. The last was on Dec. 28, when 10 Armenians were injured by people throwing stones. Members of the ArQ community have been taking turns to maintain a constant presence on the property.

According to ArQ, the contract between the Armenian Patriarchate and Xana Gardens was illegal and jeopardizes the existence of the Armenian community in the Holy Land.

“In April, we found out there was an illegal leasing of the premises known as the ‘Cows’ Garden’ — an open area which today serves as a parking lot,” Balian explained to CNA. The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem allegedly agreed to give Xana Gardens a 49-year lease of the property — with the option to renew for another 49 — to build a luxury hotel. The deal was signed in 2021 and kept a secret. 

CNA reached out to Xana Gardens for comment but received no response.

The area known as Cows' Garden in the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, seen from above. Currently, it serves as a parking lot. The area, together with some other Armenian properties, is at the center of an economic and judicial dispute after a lease deal was signed between the Armenian Patriarchate and the real estate company Xana Garden. Credit: Marinella Bandini

CNA also contacted Kerkonian Dajani LLP, the law firm representing the Armenian community of the Old City of Jerusalem.

“The community is opposed to any deal that undermines the integrity of the Armenian Quarter and the centuries-old presence of Christian Armenians in Jerusalem,” said Karnig Kerkonian, co-founder of the firm. “Our investigation has revealed that the signing of the purported agreement at issue did not follow the internal procedures of the Holy Synod [the highest authority in the Orthodox and Oriental Churches] and the General Assembly [the general assembly of the monastic order of the Brotherhood of St. James]. This, and a number of other material irregularities including financial ones, fatally handicap the validity of the purported contract.”

Furthermore, according to Balian, “this contract doesn’t bring any benefit to the Armenian Patriarchate nor to the Armenian community. The rent is $300,000 a year, which is like a joke.” 

When the Armenian community found out about the agreement, protests broke out. They felt threatened not only with regard to their security but also to their identity and cultural heritage. “We started protesting, asking for transparency from the patriarchate,” Balian explained. 

The Armenian patriarch has reportedly said he was deceived about the details of the agreement and in October 2023 canceled the deal. The patriarchate is now bringing the case to court.

The positions of ArQ and the patriarchate have gradually come closer together in the past few months, “even if they’re not fully transparent yet,” Balian said. “In any case, the outpost in the parking lot has the full support of the patriarchate.”

The complex of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The building is located in the Old City of Jerusalem in the Armenian Quarter, which comprises one-sixth of the old city and occupies the entire southwest corner of the town. Credit: Marinella Bandini

The Armenian community has been present in Jerusalem for about 1,700 years. The Old City is today divided into four quarters, a legacy of the British Mandate for Palestine. The Armenian Quarter comprises one-sixth of the old city and occupies the entire southwest corner of the city. Here are not only religious institutions such as the patriarchate, seminary, and churches but also schools, shops, and residences for approximately 2,000 people.

The property involved in the disagreement with Xana Gardens constitutes approximately 25% of the neighborhood’s total area. In addition to the parking lot, it also encompasses a residential area, the private garden of the patriarch, and the Alex and Mary Manougian Hall of the theological seminary of the patriarchate. 

“If they take 25% of the Armenian quarter, they condemn the next generation to extinction. It would be the biggest existential crisis in our history,” Balian said. 

Garo Nalbandian, a professional photographer, and his wife, Hrout, risk losing their home because of the agreement. Sitting on a couch in their spacious living room, they share their story and the anxiety they feel at the thought of having to leave the house they purchased when they got engaged in 1969 and where they have raised their children.

“We were born and raised in the Armenian Quarter. Here we feel protected,” they said. “But if they take away this land, which belongs to all Armenians worldwide, our presence and heritage will be at risk.” 

The contract with Xana Gardens was originally signed by the Armenian patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Nourhan Manougian; the grand sacristan of the Armenian Patriarchate, Archbishop Sevan Gharibian; and Father Baret Yeretzian (now known as Khachig Yeretzian), the former director of the Real Estate Department of the Armenian Patriarchate, who was defrocked and removed from his position. 

The chancellor of the Armenian Patriarchate, Father Aghan Gogchyan, told CNA that according to the bylaws of the patriarchate, the contract cannot be considered valid because one of the three signatures — that of the then-priest Yeretsian — should not have been present.

“For transactions like this, where the property is transferred for a period of more than 25 years, the signatures of the patriarch, the grand sacristan, and the chairman of the General Assembly of the Brotherhood of St. James are required. The latter is missing, and instead, someone who should not have signed has done so. That’s why the contract is not valid,” he said.

This is also why on Oct. 26, 2023, the patriarchate announced that it would cancel the lease deal, saying it was illegal, but only after months of internal pressure from the Armenian community. 

Since then, the patriarchate has consistently emphasized the exclusively Armenian character of the neighborhood and the importance of preserving it as such. 

After the patriarchate’s announcement in October, bulldozers believed to be sent by Xana Gardens entered the parking lot to dismantle the pavement and take over the area, and the ArQ group started mounting protests and peaceful sit-ins there.

“Some people are trying to spin it as a religious battle, but the issue isn’t Jewish-Armenian or Muslim-Armenian,” Balian told CNA. “It’s not a religious fight or an ethnic issue, it’s purely against Xana Capital.” 

The interior of the tent where the Armenian activists from the “Save the Armenian Quarter” (ArQ) association gather. For more than two months, a group of youth of the Armenian community of Jerusalem takes turns to maintain a constant presence and defend the area of the Armenian Patriarchate known as “Cows' Garden,” which is now a parking lot. Credit: Marinella Bandini

On Dec. 8, 2023, Archbishop Manougian, the patriarch, made a surprise visit to the members of the Save the ArQ Movement in a show of solidarity. All the members expressed their undivided and steadfast support for the patriarch for having initiated the cancellation of the illegal deal pertaining to Cows’ Garden.

Balian said there have been blessings in the struggle.

“The entire community gathered, we got united despite any political affiliation, personal differences, and familiar disputes,” Balian said. “Everyone was united around the common goal of protecting the Cows’ Garden and by extension preserving the Armenian heritage in Jerusalem … Before, there was no interaction between civilian people and clergy, but now we started to get to know each other better,” he said.

“Furthermore, through this struggle, the younger generation has come to understand the value of the land, of our heritage and presence, while before we took it for granted and not appreciated it,” he said.

The Armenian community is planning to take further legal action in the next few weeks, Kerkonian told CNA.

“We are undertaking legal actions as well as diplomatic outreach to counter the attacks on the Armenian Quarter — and to hold those having brought about the circumstances and the violence accountable,” he said.