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Jerusalem’s Armenians battle an Australian developer

It’s an unholy battle involving a property developer, an Armenian seminary, a right-wing settlers group and a scout leader-turned-activist.
Ben Lynfield
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Man in Armenian priest regalia

Armenian Patriach Nourhan Manoogian (Armenian Jerusalem)

Published: 1 April 2024

Last updated: 2 April 2024

For young activists waging a campaign that has begun to attract international attention, a large black cross in a parking lot inside the walls of the Old City symbolises that Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter is still Armenian — for now.

But that could be changing. The parking lot, five residences and other assets that add up to 25 percent of the ancient quarter are being disputed in court. They will be lost to the community unless the long-term lease by the Armenian Patriarchate in 2021 to the Xana Gardens company is overturned through legal action launched last month.

Xana Gardens, whose primary shareholder is Australian developer Danny Rubinstein Rothman, has specified that it would build a hotel where the parking lot now stands.

The Patriachate had signed a deal with Xana Gardens but, after an uproar in the community, the patriarch announced nullification of the deal, said he had been misled and defrocked a priest for alleged corruption, which the priest denied. The Patriarchate then initiated legal proceedings against Xana Gardens, which continues to view itself as the owner of the property.

Lawyers for the community submitted their court petition to nullify the lease on February 15 and Xana Gardens and the Patriarchate must now formulate and submit their responses.

'An existential threat'

The disputed parking lot is the largest remaining open space in the Old City and, in a highly contested space, it is strategic real estate. It neighbours a seminary that trains priests, mostly from Armenia, and is across the street from the compound housing the community’s school, St James Church and other key institutions.

“The Armenian presence is in great danger. We face an existential threat that we won’t be able to live here,” says Hagop Djernazian, 23, a student at the Hebrew University and a leader of opposition to the deal. Its headquarters is a protest tent in the parking lot.

The deal “gives away our 1600-year-old presence” Djernazian said. “It means losing community life, losing daily life. It means people will immigrate to other parts of Jerusalem and then entirely. The schools and the institutions won’t be able to function.”

Critics also allege the amount paid to the Armenian community for relinquishing 11.5 dunams in the Old City is "absurdly low", although the deal does provide for making additional annual payments.

Daniel Seidemann, director of the NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem is an outspoken critic of the deal and listed as a lawyer on the community’s court bid to overturn it. He describes the area as “one of the prime pieces of real estate on the planet” and questions why the patriachate would have agreed to the price.

The parking lot in the disputed area <strong>(</strong>Emil Salman)
The parking lot in the disputed area (Emil Salman)

Armenians under attack

Armenian ties to Jerusalem go back to the fourth or fifth century, when monks established a presence in the holy city, making it the oldest community in the Armenian diaspora. Today’s Armenian quarter residents are mostly descendants of survivors of the Armenian genocide, who over a century ago arrived as refugees and were given shelter in Cow’s Garden, now the lot where the hotel is to be built, Djernazian says.

Although Jerusalem is still considered a significant place in the Armenian diaspora, a sense of decline has set in during recent years with many people moving abroad. The community’s population today is about 2000, according to Djernazian.

The Armenian community has traditionally survived by adroitly avoiding taking sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict swirling around them. But increasing violence and harassment by extremist Jews and the land deal is putting that to the test.

The Armenian quarter has been a frequent target for harassment, violence and spitting attacks by Jewish extremists as anti-Christian incidents have surged in terms of number and severity in Jerusalem over the last eighteen months, said Hana Bendkowsky, program director at the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue, a Jerusalem-based interreligious organisation.

So frequent are the spitting attacks by Jewish extremists that volunteers have organised to escort religious processions from the quarter to Mount Zion, she added.

The Armenian presence is in great danger. We face an existential threat.

Hagop Djernazian

Protest leader Hagop Djernazian
Protest leader Hagop Djernazian

,Aviv Tatarsky, a senior staffer at Ir Amim, an organisation that strives for equality among all Jerusalem residents, says if the sale is not overturned it will be "devastating for the Armenian community”.

“There are important religious institutions there and the settlers always want more,” he said, adding that a pattern of disruption of the lives of Palestinians and violence comes with settler takeovers, citing Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and the Muslim quarter as examples. This, he said, would be the case in the Armenian quarter too, which already suffers from violence by Jewish extremists.

A teenager who studies at the Armenian school, who asked not to be identified, painted a bleak picture if the activists fail. “There will be more problems here with Jews,” he said, during a break from soccer practice.

Incidents of spitting in front of churches, spitting in front of priests and what he alleged was the use by the developers of settlers equipped with dogs to drive away protesters was already putting people on edge. “Of course this bothers me,” he said. “We don’t want fights. We want peace here.”

Ateret Cohanim founder Mati Dan, his back to the camera, speaking with the developers of the hotel project<br>&nbsp;
Ateret Cohanim founder Mati Dan, his back to the camera, speaking with the developers of the hotel project

Jewish settlers target Armenian quarter

The Xana Gardens deal is more threatening to the Armenian community, given the track record of Jewish development in the Old City. Ateret Cohanim, a far-right group strives to “redeem” areas of Jerusalem by settling Jews.

In recent years, Ateret Cohanim has acquired two Greek Orthodox Patriarchate properties just down the block at the Jaffa Gate area. Penetrating the Armenian quarter would be a major advance of its efforts to transform the holy city.

Ateret Cohanim executive director, Daniel Luria says the group has "no connection of involvement" with the Xana Gardens project but he supports the Xana Gardens development.

Luria says the reversal and uproar over the property sale is solely because developer Rubinstein Rothman, is Jewish.

“In my opinion, the story and very belated objection of the Armenian church to the Old City acquisition smells and seems to be related to the centuries old antisemitism of the church, who simply seem to object to the acquisition because the purchaser is Jewish.”

Battle on the ground

Since the reversal, Xana Gardens has deployed men, on one occasion reportedly armed or with dogs, to try and drive the protesters away. Inside the tent there is damage to the pavement it was erected on, testament to efforts of the developers to start work on the lot with a bulldozer. The activists and their backers thwarted the effort with a human chain. They take shifts 24/7 in the tent to sound the alert in the event of a recurrence.

Despite the tense atmosphere, Djernazian now thinks the Armenian community has a decent chance of winning the lawsuit against the deal after its lawyer, Sami Irsheid, located a 16th century Ottoman registration document that may cast doubt on the legality of the transaction.

Irsheid told The Jewish Independent that he found the document in the archive of the sharia (Islamic Law) court in East Jerusalem. “It shows the property is an endowment (waqf) that belongs to the community not to the church or the patriarchate. It can’t be sold without the permission of the community.”

Djernazian says the activists are ready for a long struggle. They want to be sure the Armenian properties will not meet the same fate as the Greek Orthodox properties. “When you fight for your existence, you fight till the end,” he said.

Xana Gardens and the Armenian Patriarchate both declined to answer questions for this article.

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.


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