The Christian Greek Orthodox community in Bethlehem has been in a tumult in recent days following the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) intention to expropriate the lands of the Church of Nativity which belong to the Church.
A few days ago, 11 institutions associated with the Greek-Orthodox Church published a statement protesting the ongoing attempt by the PA to take control of the plaza in front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
The proclamation, which was initiated by the Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, protests the harming of the Christian presence in Bethlehem, the forfeiting of their rights, the harm to the Church’s assets and the violation of their right to light Christmas trees on the plaza.
The protest was also joined by Michelle Freij, the son of former Bethlehem mayor Elias Freij.
The leaders of the Greek Orthodox community have accused the PA of working in recent years to put its hand on the area near the Church of the Nativity, property of the Orthodox Church and turn it over to the municipality of Bethlehem and the PA’s local government office.
The protest has spread through social media networks, prompting the Bethlehem City Council to announce that it does not intend to harm the various sectors and will maintain the status quo in the city.
A church official told TPS that for three years, one of the Catholic Church’s leaders, Ibrahim Faltas, has been working with Bethlehem’s Mayor Anton Salman, a Catholic as well, to take over the Greek Orthodox Church’s lands.
He said the two became good friends while participating in negotiations during the 2002 crisis that took place in the Church of the Nativity in which terrorists barricaded themselves there and left only after extensive negotiations. The two are considered in Bethlehem to be PA operatives and close to the Fatah.
The official added that while the PA has recently announced through the municipality that it does not intend to discriminate against any of the communities or take over the land, the Greek Orthodox Church leaders are aware of the authority’s efforts to gain control of their property.
Speaking off record, sources involved in the affair said that one of the Greek Orthodox Church’s leaders is suspected by the PA of dealing in land with Jews and, therefore, the PA is working to counteract his actions by taking over the land. The tension is mounting between Salman and his deputy, Hanna Hananya, who supports the Greek Orthodox Church’s claims.
A Bethlehem official told TPS that since the PA arrived in the city in 1994, the number of Christians in the city has significantly diminished and currently accounts for less than 22 percent of the city’s residents.
He further said that Christmas ceremonies are gradually turning from a religious Christian event to a national event sponsored by the PA, even though in recent years it has acted to deprive Christians of their properties.
Meanwhile, further tensions are rising among Greek Orthodox Christians after the municipality of al-Azzariya near Bethlehem released a tender to operate the Tomb of Lazarus. Christians are angry because they say the land does not belong to the municipality and therefore it does not have the authority to issue tenders to operate the tourism site.
A Bethlehem resident told TPS that tourists who have recently visited the Tomb of Lazarus testified that a number of young people and thugs are demanding entry fees.
Several months ago, a violent incident occurred in the Christian village of Jifna, near Ramallah, when Fatah activists, operating under a senior official close to PA head Mahmoud Abbas, rioted in the village and ordered the Christian to pay the Jizyah tax “so that they could enjoy the PA’s protection.”
The Jizyah is an annual per capita tax levied by Islamic law on non-Muslim subjects residing in Muslim lands. The tax is a fee for protection provided by the Muslim ruler to non-Muslims, for the permission to practice a non-Muslim religion with some communal autonomy in a Muslim state, and as proof of the non-Muslims’ submission to the Muslim state and its laws.
Jizyah has also been understood by some as a ritual humiliation of non-Muslims in a Muslim state for not converting to Islam.