Home Christian News Armenian Christians Battle Developer To Keep Control of Their Corner of Jerusalem

Armenian Christians Battle Developer To Keep Control of Their Corner of Jerusalem

Armenian Christians
Members of the Armenian community protest a contentious deal that stands to displace residents and hand over a large section of the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, Friday, May 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

(RNS) — Amid the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, another battle is playing out in Jerusalem among its small but storied Armenian Christian community, their own patriarch and an Australian-Israeli businessman who is said to be set on taking over the Armenian Quarter of the Old City.

Last month, things escalated as Jewish settlers aided by dogs and bulldozers disrupted a long-running sit-in in a site known as the Cow’s Garden, currently a parking lot, where businessman Danny Rothman plans to build his latest hotel.

Rothman’s company, Xana Capital Group, made a secret deal in 2021 with the Armenian Christian patriarchate to lease a swath of the Armenian Quarter, including part of the Armenian Theological Seminary and several family homes. When the deal became public, the local community rebelled, a priest who oversees the church’s real estate was defrocked and Patriarch Nourhan Manougian’s leadership came under question.

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“This is land that belongs to the Armenian community for centuries,” Levon Kalaydjian, a Jerusalem-born Armenian, told Religion News Service. “This does not belong to the patriarchate, nor is it for him, the patriarch, to do whatever he wants to do with it.”

Armenians have had a presence in Jerusalem since the fourth century, when Armenia became the first sovereign state to convert to Christianity. Some of Jerusalem’s Armenians trace their heritage to pilgrims who came to the holy city nearly that long ago, while others arrived from the former Ottoman Empire, fleeing the Armenian genocide in 1915 and 1916.

Today the smallest of the four divisions of Jerusalem’s Old City, the Armenian Quarter is considered separate from the larger Christian Quarter, where Palestinian Christians speak Arabic and worship in Greek Orthodox or Catholic churches.

The 2,000 or so Armenians, who speak a unique Jerusalem dialect of Armenian and belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, are represented by the Armenian Patriarchate and the monastic order of the Brotherhood of St. James, which acts as a mini-welfare state: Most Armenians live in church-owned property and work in a church or monastery.

In Jerusalem’s tense cultural politics, the Armenians are widely considered the most peaceful demographic in the Old City, maintaining good relations with both Jewish Israelis and Arab Palestinians. That unique status has been complicated by the fact that they are sitting on one of the Holy Land’s most valuable pieces of real estate.

“The piece of land we’re talking about is one of the most important in the city, if not in the country and the world,” said Setrag Balian, one of the founders of the current protest movement. “Striking as it might sound, it is a fact.”

The Armenian Quarter occupies the highest point in the Old City and lies along the main path from the Jaffa Gate to the Western Wall and Jewish Quarter. It is also situated on one of the few vehicle-accessible roads in the Old City. The Cow’s Garden is one of the few undeveloped spaces inside the walls.