On January 6, protesters in Bethlehem rallied against the head of the Greek Orthodox Church during a ceremonial visit to the Church of the Nativity. Theophilos III was in the occupied West Bank City to celebrate Orthodox Christmas Eve and was confronted by protesters – the majority of whom were Palestinian Christians – who destroyed the windows of two convoy cars, as well as egging the vehicle of the patriarch himself. Many of the demonstrators were there to express their discontent with the church leader’s alleged participation in controversial real estate deals involving the sale of holy Palestinian land to Israeli businesses and extremist groups. Reports in Israeli media also claim that the patriarch has personally benefited from the proceeds of said deals.
It is important to note, too, that the Orthodox Church is the second-biggest landowner in East Jerusalem, and the sale of these lands is extremely sensitive given that the city is supposed to be partitioned to accommodate the future capital of a Palestinian state. As well, the protests arrive a month after the United States (US) diplomatic move to recognize Jerusalem as the “eternal capital of Israel,” a decision that has received almost unilateral disapproval at the United Nations, since the status of Jerusalem can only be determined through direct Israeli and Palestinian talks.
While Orthodox Church officials claim that the real estate deals have been pursued to pay back debts, many Palestinians are skeptical of this argument, as there have been reports suggesting that the Israeli state – galvanized by an aggressive US administration – has been putting pressure on each new head of the Greek Orthodox Church into selling land to gain the necessary recognition within the Christian community (the other entities that must approve a new patriarch are the Palestinian Authority, and the state of Jordan).
Palestinian communities in Israel had most of their lands seized by the state in the 1950s and 1960s, leaving them with no room to expand. Until now, the Orthodox Church had been leasing out land, and though immediate Palestinian discontent relates to the controversial real estate deals, the church also faces broader criticism due to its organizational nature: it is dominated by a Greek clergy (who are alien to the harsh realities of living in occupied land) while the church members are mostly Palestinian.
The discontent is such that Palestinians have called Theophilos III a traitor, and are demanding his immediate resignation.