Jerusalem: Armenians in court over disputed property in the Old City

Italy – Feb 26 2024

The community is appealing to the courts to assert its rights over the 'Garden of Cows' at the centre of an opaque real estate transaction that threatens to distort their historic neighbourhood. The land is held in trust with a waqf fund established 400 years ago. The objective is the annulment of the sale agreement. Pro Terra Sancta" collection: the Custodian calls for "prayer, pilgrimages and sharing of resources" from Christians around the world.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – The Armenian community in Jerusalem is appealing to the court to assert its rights over a disputed property in the holy city, officially filing a lawsuit on February 18 aimed at "invalidating" the lease agreement between the patriarchate and Xana Capital.

The lawsuit is based on the assumption that the land is held in trust for the benefit of the Armenian community itself, with a waqf fund – generally real estate alienated as a donation with a restriction on use for certain beneficiaries – established over 400 years ago.

Under its terms, the property could not be rented or sold by the patriarchate unless the transaction directly benefits the Armenian community and is approved by the community, which has expressed its opposition.

The Armenian community in the Holy Land has long been at the centre of a dispute over the sale of land in a disputed area in the Old City, Jerusalem, which has created a deep internal rift. The clash was sparked by the 99-year lease – a de facto transfer – of real estate to an Australian Jewish entrepreneur with an opaque business empire, who operates from behind the scenes.

The 'traitor' priest who mediated and signed the deed is Baret Yeretzian, former administrator of the real estate of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, now in 'exile'. With him were Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, Archbishop Sevan Gharibian and businessman Daniel Rubenstein (known as Danny Rothman), who intends to build a luxury hotel.

The affair has also touched the patriarchal office, with the Armenian primate 'challenged' by the community, some of the faithful calling for his resignation, while Jordan and Palestine have de facto 'frozen' the authority.

The affair exploded last May, but the contract was signed in great secrecy in July 2021 and envisages the lease for almost a century of the land known as the "Garden of the Cows" (Goveroun Bardez), today a car park used to drive to the Wailing Wall. Its use – along with other properties mentioned in the contract – by Jews has provoked the wrath of the Armenians, who have been fighting since 2021 to regain full possession of it.

The dispute also touches on the 'Abrahamic Agreements' themselves, because one of the companies involved is One&Only, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE).

By taking the matter to court, the Armenian community is seeking the annulment of the alleged agreement and the protection of the land, with a unity of purpose between the community, patriarchate and Diaspora Armenians. In a statement, the Jerusalem Armenians emphasise their "firm conviction" about the "lack of transparency and cooperation" behind the affair, which aims to effectively expropriate the area.

"The community continues the statement – we will fight to the end to ensure that the Armenian quarter remains intact, Armenian and for the benefit of the people. These are precisely the principles that have united the global Armenian world – and our allies who understand the value of the unique mosaic that is the ancient city of Jerusalem – to save the Armenian Quarter'.

The Custos of the Holy Land, Fr Francesco Patton, speaks of the need for "closeness" and "solidarity" on the part of "Christians from all over the world" in his message on the Good Friday "Pro Terra Sancta" Collection, sent to AsiaNews for information. After more than two years of "uncertainty" for the Covid and the illusion of a return to "normality", there was the sudden outbreak of the new conflict following the attack on 7 October that took one by "surprise".

In addition to the thousands of dead, Fr Patton also recalls the new blockade to the flow of pilgrims, the closure of schools and the loss of work "for many Christians in the Holy Land, especially in Bethlehem and Palestine, but also in the old city of Jerusalem and in Israel". Hence the renewed call for closeness not only through prayer, but also through pilgrimages and the "sharing of economic resources".

"The Good Friday Collection serves to cover part of these costs, thanks to the generosity of the faithful around the world, thanks to your generosity. On this occasion, we friars of the Custody of the Holy Land make ourselves beggars and we turn to you so that Good Friday may be a day of universal solidarity, a day in which Christians from all over the world concretely take care of the Mother Church of Jerusalem, which at this moment – the Custos concludes – is in extreme need".