The battle for Jerusalem plays out in the Armenian Quarter

Jan 21 2024
A questionable real estate transaction between Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian and Australian-Israeli settler Dany Rubenstein is testing the resolve of the local Armenian community, which opposes the encroachment of settlers on their land.

Local Jerusalemite Armenians are under mounting pressure from Israeli settlers to relinquish control of a big chunk of property held for centuries by their forefathers in the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. In the battle for Jerusalem, many in the Armenian community are adamant about defending and keeping the property out of the settlers’ grip.

A questionable real estate transaction in one of Jerusalem’s most sensitive areas between Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian and Australian-Israeli settler Dany Rubenstein is testing the resolve of the local Armenian community, which opposes the deal. In an occupied city where Jewish settlers are constantly seeking to upset a delicate status quo in their favor for political and ideological reasons, demographics and real-estate ownership are intensely political issues. As such, the sale of such property to the hands of settlers is causing an embarrassment to one of Jerusalem’s oldest Christian communities and stokes tensions with Palestinians. 

For months, Hagop Dejernazian and fellow Jerusalemite-Armenians have been rallying their community in the Armenian Quarter in occupied East Jerusalem to stand firm in the face of Israeli settlers and their agents. At stake are 11.5 dunams (2.8 Acres) of precious land on the Western edge of Jerusalem’s Old City that have been in the possession of the community for centuries. Above the uncertainty the deal brought to their lives, they have endured at least three violent attacks from thugs hired by an investment company with settler ties, with the objective of intimidating them into relinquishing control of the property. 

“It was a brutal attack against the Armenian community that endangered our presence here,” Dejernazian remarked on the latest raid on December 28, 2023, by some 30 men bursting into the property armed with batons, assailing members of the community, including priests, seeking to eject them. 

In October of last year, amid the uproar, the Patriarchate canceled the deal it had signed with Dany Rubenstein, and the matter was referred to the courts.  

The real-estate transaction estranged the local Jerusalemite Armenian community from the Patriarchate, which is mainly run by clergy of Armenian descent from abroad and largely indifferent to the political considerations or implications accompanying such a deal. 

Now, Dejernazian and his fellow local Armenians are in a situation where they have to defend the character of the community under threat from messianic settlers, all while without the clear backing of a Patriarchate that has lost respect. 

The rift between the locals and the Patriarchate grew more evident when the latter challenged the deal with Rubenstein without considering the community’s views. 

“They excluded the community,” Dejernazian stated.

“I think they’re still not ready to accept that the community is stronger than them. The community will decide its future and not a priest who comes from abroad who doesn’t know anything about the situation or politics in Jerusalem, or about the Middle East,” he added. 

The worry, local Armenians say, is that the Patriarchate will eventually compromise with the settlers and agree to lease part of the property. This would be disastrous to the local Armenian community.

In 2020, the Patriarchate leased part of the property to the Israeli-run Jerusalem municipality to be used as a parking lot purportedly “for Jews and Armenians.” The Municipality was granted a 10-year lease. 

The Patriarchate first agreed to a long-term 99-year lease to Rubenstein (representing Xana Gardens) in July 2021, with the partial consent or knowledge of the synod, reportedly to develop a luxury hotel on the property. The deal signed between the Patriarchate and Dany Rubinstein purportedly encompasses a vast tract of land currently used as a parking lot, a seminary, and five residential homes. 

The contract, according to an article published in The Armenian Mirror Spectator in September 2021, was approved by Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, Grand Sacristan Sevan Gharibian, and Fr. Yeretzian.

Sometime after, new information came to light. Dany Rubenstein has a partner named Geroge Warwar, an Arab Christian man thought to be from Jaffa. 

In October 2023, following growing discontent from the local Armenian community and members of the diaspora opposing the deal with Dany Rubinstein, the Patriarchate announced that it had pulled back from the agreement signed with Xana Gardens.  

On November 5 of last year, armed settlers stormed the parking lot known as the Cow’s Garden in the Armenian Quarter, knocked down parts of a stone wall and partially destroyed asphalt ground. The stone wall is roughly in the middle of the land, separating the part leased to the Municipality for a parking lot and the Armenian Patriarchate’s private parking lot, which is said to be outside the deal. Local Armenians quickly organized, repelling the assailants. Dany Rubenstein and partner George Warwar’s thugs returned in mid-November and then again in late December. On both occasions, they were repulsed. 

An investigation by The New Arab revealed that among the armed assailants was an American Jewish settler with links to Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s Minister of National Security. 

Another U.S. citizen, Sam Goodman, aka Tzvi Goodman, was also identified in the investigation. Goodman is linked to current Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Aryeh King, who is infamous for his pro-settler agenda. They both have a history of involvement in the eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem to achieve a Jewish majority there. 

An unsourced photo that surfaced late last year showed Dany Rubenstein and George Warwar meeting with Matityahu Dan and Australian-born Daniel Luria, both from Ateret Cohanim, the same settler organization that purchased key properties, The Imperial Hotel and The Petra Hotel, in Jaffa Gate two decades ago from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. The hotels are only a minute’s walk from the Armenian Quarter and the land in question. 

Locals are now planning to file their own lawsuit against the transaction that transpired between the Patriarchate and Xana Gardens. 

The outcry over the deal led them to contemplate taking matters of the community, including the property administered by the Patriarchate, into their own hands. They reason that an institution that enters a deal with political consequences and endangers the status and standing of the community warrants a new modus operandi. 

“I don’t trust them; I don’t trust an institution that brought us to this day, that brought us to this catastrophe,” Dejernazian said. 

Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back over a millennium and a half ago. Historical records tell that Armenia became the first nation to formally adopt Christianity in 301 AD—more than a decade before Rome. Subsequently, Armenian pilgrims began journeying to Jerusalem, with some remaining to establish a permanent community.

“Jerusalem is my country, more than Armenia,” George Hintilian told Mondoweiss us as he sat in the spacious tent the community erected in the parking lot to keep a steady day-and-night watch against potential settler attacks. 

“In many ways, we are Palestinian,” he added. 

Hintilian, an expert historian of Armenian affairs and a central figure in the Armenian community in Old Jerusalem, reaffirms that the Armenian presence in Jerusalem is 16 centuries old. 

His ancestors arrived in Palestine from Konya and Cappadocia in Ottoman Turkey during the First World War, seeking refuge from persecution by the authorities. 

For the septuagenarian chronicler, Jerusalem is a mosaic of cultures and religions, of which he speaks fondly, and this deal stands to make it homogenous and exclusive to one group. 

Summing up the turn of events, he remarked that a “careless” Patriarch “signed away” a piece of “precious heritage” in an “unnecessary” deal. 

“I’m very angry and sad,” Hintilian said. “We are fighting for our future.”

Israel has long sought to acquire Church property, specifically in Jerusalem. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which is said to be the second-largest owner of real estate in the city but claims inadequate cash flow to pay salaries and for the upkeep of its monasteries, has long been mired by allegations of leaking valuable property into the hands of the government and settler organizations. It, too, has earned the distrust and dismay of many Palestinian Christians who accuse it of corruption. 

The Knesset, for instance, is one of many state buildings constructed on land leased from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS