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Palestinians fuming over Greek Orthodox Church land

The Greek Orthodox Church has come under fire from Palestinians in the Holy Land after Patriarch Theophilos III was accused of selling off land to extremist Jewish settlers in prime locations in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets of Jerusalem this month to call for the removal of senior clergyman claiming that he had colluded with a settler organisation.

According to the article in Aljazeera.com, the settler group, Ateret Cohanim, has been working for decades to evict Palestinians from their homes and shops in the Old City, including around important holy sites such as the al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

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The land deal, initiated back in 2004, brought down Theophilos’s predecessor, Irineos, more than a decade ago after he sold an option for a 198-year lease on three strategically located properties in the Old City to front companies representing Ateret Cohanim.

Secret tape recordings of Ateret Cohanim officials have in the past raised concerns that Israel is strong-arming each new Greek Orthodox Patriarch into selling land by refusing to agree to recognise his appointment until he cooperates with the settler group.

Much is at stake, as nearly a quarter of land in East Jerusalem is reported to be Church-owned, including the Mount of Olives, Sheikh Jarrah and large swaths of the Old City – all sites targeted by the settler movement.

The issue of land sales is especially contentious in East Jerusalem because the city is supposed to become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

But the controversy stretches much further, with growing numbers of Palestinian Christians outraged at a wave of recent land sales by the Patriarch inside Israel and the occupied West Bank. The Greek Orthodox Church is reputedly the second-largest landowner in the country after the Israeli state itself, with title deeds to some 400sq km, according to local Palestinian Christians.

More than 300 Palestinians filed a criminal complaint to the Palestinian attorney general in Ramallah last month, accusing the Patriarch of “treason”. They said they were forced to act after the Church refused to make public details of its real-estate deals.

The land sales have triggered a broader campaign demanding an end to the Church’s dominance by Greek-born clergy. Protesters this month were among those calling for Palestinian clerics to take over the Patriarchate.

Adi Bajali, who attended the protest in Jerusalem and is a member of the Orthodox Central Council, which represents Orthodox communities in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, said the Patriarch was behaving like a “dictator”.

“This land does not belong to him – it belongs to our community. It is our future and our children’s future,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Israel has a declared intention to make all of the land here Jewish. Our mother Church should not be assisting them by stripping us of our birthright.”

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