After a two decade-long legal battle, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, located in the Old City, has just lost two properties, to the benefit of the ultra-nationalist Jewish organization Ateret Cohanim which works for the creation of a Jewish majority in the Old City and the Arab quarters of East Jerusalem.
The Israeli Supreme Court validated, on the evening of June 8, the acquisition of land from the Greek Orthodox Church in the Old City of Jerusalem by an association of Israeli settlers. After twenty years of proceedings, the ultra-nationalist Jewish organization Ateret Cohanim (“Crown of Priests”) is now authorized to occupy two hotels located in the Christian and Muslim quarters of the old city.
For Msgr. William Shomali, vicar of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the loss of these properties will change the appearance of the Christian quarter of East Jerusalem. “The two hotels located in our neighborhood can accommodate hundreds of settlers, armed and sometimes violent. They could, at any time, stop traffic in the Christian quarter or the religious processions passing through it,” he warns.
A future physical, religious, and cultural threat of which Christian Palestinians will be the first victims. “We don't want our neighborhood to be controlled by settlers. For us, it’s like buying two large hotels in the center of Mea Shearim [ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in West Jerusalem, ed.]. Everyone must have space to breathe,” he insists.
Msgr. Shomali recognizes “a weakness on the part of the Orthodox patriarchate,” whose employees allegedly received “bribes” in 2004, pushing them to sign the sale of the two hotels with Ateret Cohanim. The Patriarchal Vicar of Jerusalem points to “the sympathy of the Israeli court for the settlers,” which has made this legal issue a losing battle.
Settlers from Ateret Cohanim had already taken possession, as of March 26, 2022, of part of the Petra hotel, without an eviction order having been issued, and while the case had not yet been decided by the Israeli Court. For the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the June 8 decision is “unjust”; it endorses “dishonest and illegal” methods on the part of the settlers, in one of the most symbolic places of the Arab Muslim and Christian presence in Jerusalem.
Msgr. Shomali denounced a movement seeking the Judaization of the Old City, already undertaken in recent years. The entrance to the Christian quarter, where the road through the New Gate passes, would, for example, become “an open-air bar.” Israelis come and go there “for a beer or a coffee,” he said, aiming to transform one of the few spaces reserved for Palestinian Christians.
Msgr. Shomali asks that the status of Jerusalem be protected, so that the communities and all the pilgrims can circulate there peacefully. “Jerusalem must be a city open to all, with equal rights for all communities, where each respects the other,” he demands.
Christian communities today need international guarantees to protect the special status of Jerusalem. “The absence of such guarantees led to the settlers’ victory,” said Msgr. Shomali.
The Israeli court must still decide on another aspect of this legal battle, concerning the fate of Palestinian residents who have the status of “protected tenants,” according to Assaad Mazzawi, lawyer for the Greek Orthodox patriarchate.