Feb 11 2024
The Armenian Quarter actually makes up one-sixth of the Old City (the others being the Muslim, Christian and Jewish quarters) and the Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to the 4th century. Together with the adjacent Christian quarter, it is considered a stronghold for the city's small Christian minority. The threat of Jewish settlers taking over parts of the neighborhood is widely seen as changing the demographic status quo to Israel's interests.
In 2021, Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manoogian agreed to a 98-year lease for part of the Armenian Quarter with developers. The agreement covers a large area that today includes a parking lot, buildings belonging to the office of the leader of the Armenian Church – known as the Patriarchate – and the homes of five Armenian families.
News of the deal sparked strong protests among Armenians in the neighborhood last year. Such was the depth of feeling that, in October, the Patriarch and other church leaders felt compelled to cancel the agreement. This led to violent confrontations between settlers and local Armenians.
After a few quiet weeks, fighting broke out again at the end of December, when more than 30 men armed with stones and clubs reportedly attacked Armenians who had been guarding the area for several weeks.
The dispute has now gone to court. The question is whether the lease is valid or whether unilateral termination renders the contract invalid. The Patriarchate has hired lawyers – local, from Armenia and the United States – who will present their case that the agreement was not concluded properly due to irregularities in the contract.
This is not a single incident. Since the Six-Day War of 1967, when all of Jerusalem came under Israeli control, there have been concerted efforts to change the demographics of traditionally Arab East Jerusalem.
In many places, the authorities are evicting Arab families who have lived there for decades under the pretext of their lack of documents proving ownership of the house. Then a Jewish family moves in.
This change in the demographic composition of East Jerusalem occurs through evictions, demolitions and building restrictions. This also happens in the famous and touristic Old City of Jerusalem.
Nearly 20 years ago, there was a small scandal when it emerged that the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, a large real estate owner, had entered into a long lease agreement with a Jewish settlement organization regarding two historic hotels.
Disputed territories: In most two-state solution plans, East Jerusalem would be the capital of a Palestinian state.
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)CC BY-ND
Now we have a similar incident involving the Armenian Patriarchate. Selling or renting property to long-time Jewish settlers is viewed very negatively by Palestinians, who have long struggled against illegal Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas.
East Jerusalem is of vital importance to Palestinians. In the proposed plans for a two-state solution, it is the intended capital of the future Palestinian state. Therefore, decisively changing demographics is a priority goal for some in Israel – including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who does not want a two-state solution.
This conflict also highlights an old problem facing the Christian churches in Jerusalem: the gap between the leadership and the people. Ancient churches are inherently hierarchical with leaders at the top ruling supreme. An additional problem in Jerusalem is that church leaders are not always chosen from local residents.
The largest Christian denomination in the Holy Land is the Greek Orthodox Church. Its members are largely Arab, but the patriarch and other prominent bishops are Greek.
Nourhan Manoogian, the current 97th Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, was born in Syria to an Armenian family. The Armenian Patriarchate has been accused of corruption and illegal property sales in the past, long before the current crisis.
If the Armenians lose this battle and the settler movement gains control of such a key site, it will hurt a small, vulnerable minority. The settlers' campaign to colonize East Jerusalem under Jewish control will have achieved another victory.