Armenian Church Accuses Israelis of a Land Grab

Ancient Olive Grove Seized for Security Wall

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JERUSALEM, JULY 23, 2002 ( The Armenian Orthodox Church is opposing Israel’s seizure of an ancient olive grove for a planned security wall between Jerusalem and the Palestinian town of Bethlehem.

Community leaders of this church, one of the oldest in the Holy Land, accuse Israel of a land grab that has less to do with its security than with an attempt to expand its border into the West Bank, according to the Financial Times.

The fate of the 35-acre site is being watched by the Armenian government, whose senior representative in Jerusalem has written to Foreign Minister Shimon Peres demanding an explanation for «this infringement of Armenian rights.»

The Baron Der property, purchased in 1641 as the site of a summer residence for the patriarch, lies on the northern outskirts of Bethlehem where the town borders the Jerusalem municipality. The Jerusalem city limits were extended by Israel after the 1967 war in an annexation of West Bank land that is not internationally recognized.

The invisible «red» line dividing the municipalities — a potential state border in any Mideast settlement — runs through the 1,600-tree olive grove. The proposed 40-meter-wide barrier would cut through the Armenian property and occupy land on both sides of the border.

It would be part of a 350 kilometer (217 mile) barrier being built around the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem to stop Palestinian suicide bombers reaching Israel. Overnight, in Gaza, Israel killed the commander of the military wing of Hamas and 14 other Palestinians including nine children in an air raid on his home that also wiped out a crowded city block today, hospital officials said.

The Armenian Patriarchate received emergency seizure orders late last month from the Israeli defense ministry, which claims the Jerusalem side of the line, and the army commander of the West Bank, who is commandeering the southern stretch.

What was until recently a rural retreat for Armenian monks is part of a wider agricultural area hemmed in on the south by Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp. To the north is an Israeli settler road and to the east the heavily fortified Israeli enclave of Rachel’s Tomb, one of Judaism’s holiest sites and a frequent target of attacks in the 22-month Palestinian uprising.

Armenian community leaders believe sovereignty over the access route to the tomb is the underlying motive of the land seizure.

Jewish worshippers are transported in armored vehicles to the tomb, a few hundred yards inside Palestinian territory. But a proposal has been floated to link the shrine of the biblical matriarch to the Jerusalem municipality. That would involve moving the border 200 meters further south into West Bank territory.

Although the proposal has not won government approval, the Ashkenazi and Sephardic chief rabbis of Israel have ruled the tomb must remain in Israeli hands in a final Israeli-Palestinian border settlement.

Thus, the Armenian Church finds itself unwillingly at the center of a territorial dispute. The Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back more than 16 centuries, almost to the time when Armenia became the first nation to embrace Christianity as its official religion in 301. The patriarchate was founded in 638, the year of the Muslim conquest of the holy city.

Today, however, emigration has reduced the community in the Old City of Jerusalem to about 2,000. Yet, the Armenian Church is the largest landowner in the Old City and has substantial holdings in the Israeli coastal city of Jaffa and in Jewish west Jerusalem, where it owns much of the central shopping district.

The church jealously protects its ancient rights as one of the three traditional guardians of Christian holy sites, along with the Greek Orthodox Church and the Catholic Franciscan order.

Armenia’s honorary consul in Jerusalem, Tsolag Momjian, wrote to Peres: «Baron Der has an enormous historical and moral value to the Armenian Church and the Armenian people.»

The olive trees of Baron Der supply the oil that lights the lamps over the traditional tomb of Christ at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and above his traditional birthplace at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Israeli officials have so far held off starting work on the barrier. But, in several meetings with Armenian officials, they said the seizure orders were irreversible.

The church has responded with a petition to the Israeli supreme court. Mazen Qupti, the patriarchate’s Arab Israeli lawyer, said: «The Armenians say it’s the wrong place for a security wall and that they are losing what is a holy place for them.»

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