Hundreds of Greek Orthodox Christians on Saturday demonstrated at the entrance to Bethlehem against Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, called him “traitor” and even tried to prevent him from entering the Church of the Nativity.
The Greek Orthodox Church marks Christmas Day on January 7.
The protesters accuse the patriarch of corruption in the administrating church lands, and selling large swaths of real estate in western and eastern Jerusalem to Jews. The church has been accused numerous times over the past two decades of selling its leasing rights over land in Jerusalem to Israeli Jewish investors, including, in August 2016, selling the future rights to 123.5 acres in Rehavia, one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Jerusalem. The rights will be officially transferred in 2050, when the Jewish National Fund’s lease on the land is set to expire.
Among the deals that caused the greatest Arab resentment was the sale of three large buildings in the area of Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem to the Ateret Cohanim group, through companies registered abroad. That deal was made by Patriarch Irenaios, who was consequently dismissed by the Church and replaced by Theophilos III. The Church has been asking Israeli’s Supreme Court to reverse the sale over the claimed corruption of its own disgraced leader.
Theophilos III will lead the midnight mass at the Church of Nativity, which will be attended by PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. But Abbas will not attend the traditional dinner held by the patriarch, in recognition of the protest, and the demand by many Christian Arabs to boycott the patriarch.
Palestinian Authority security forces prevented the demonstrators from approaching the Patriarch’s convoy, and placed the patriarch in a camouflage vehicle, rather than in a festive car, as is the custom. A source in the Palestinian Authority told Ha’aretz, “We’re defending Christmas, not the patriarch.”