By Crispian Balmer
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The heads of the Christian Churches in Jerusalem issued a rare joint appeal at the weekend, warning that a contested land deal could erase the centuries-old presence of the Armenian community within the Old City.
The ethnic Armenian community has its own district within the ancient city of Jerusalem under borders drawn by Ottoman rulers – the smallest of the four quarters, which also include highly distinct Muslim, Jewish and Christian neighbourhoods.
However Armenians say they risk being uprooted by a deal to lease about 25% of their area to developers who want to build a luxury hotel on the site.
The deal was signed by the head of the Armenian Church in Jerusalem in July 2021, but members of his community said the first they heard of it was when surveyors started work in the area this year.
He has told his congregation that he was misled and has started legal action to get the contract annulled. The priest who brokered the accord on his behalf was defrocked by the Church Synod in May and he has left Jerusalem.
Despite the legal challenge, bulldozers arrived last week and started tearing up a carpark, which covers some of the contested land. When protesters blocked the work, armed Israeli Jewish settlers turned up in a failed effort to disperse the demonstration.
“The provocations that are being used by the alleged developers to deploy incendiary tactics threaten to erase the Armenian presence in the area, weakening and endangering the Christian presence in the Holy Land,” the Christian leaders wrote, including the heads of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.
The Armenian community says the investor behind the land lease deal is an Australian-Israeli businessman Danny Rubinstein, who owns a company registered in the United Arab Emirates – Xana Capital Group. A company sign was posted in the parking lot shortly after the surveyors turned up.
Rubinstein did not respond to a request for a comment about the project sent via his Linked-In account.
By tradition, Armenia was the first kingdom to convert to Christianity as a state religion in 301, and although its Church is much smaller than the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches, it has parity of rights at Jerusalem’s Holy Christian sites.
At the heart of their Quarter lies the ornately decorated St. James’s Cathedral, which dates to 420 A.D., strung with precious lamps and often infused with the haunting singing of its black-cowled monks.
The Quarter covers a sixth of walled Jerusalem and houses just 1,000 people, a fraction of the Old City’s 35,000-strong population.
Armenian locals say the land lease project would consume not just their carpark, the largest open space in the Old City, but also their community hall, the patriarch’s garden, the seminary and five family houses.
“The Armenians have been here since the 4th Century, but we now risk being uprooted,” said Hagop Djernazian, 23, a student, who is part of a group guarding the carpark night and day, with barbed wire strung out to try to keep out developers and settlers. “We are having to fight for our existence,” he said.
Daniel Seidemann, an activist Israeli lawyer who closely monitors the spread of Jewish settlers around Jerusalem, said the project was aimed at expanding the footprint of the Jewish Quarter across half the Old City.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City, from Jordanian forces in a 1967 war. Israel regards the entire city as its eternal and undivided capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
“We are aware of a plan to encircle the outside the Old City with settlement projects. We suspect this Armenia Quarter deal is meant to be a continuation of this plan inside the city walls,” Seidemann told Reuters.
“However, there is so much irregularity surrounding it that there is a good chance the courts will reject it.”
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Andrew Heavens)