Israeli settlers breaking into a church property in the Old City of Jerusalem could ignite a turbulent scenario, warned the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem on Sunday.
It said in a statement that the break-in of the Israeli organisation Ateret Cohanim into the Little Petra Hotel, which the church says it still owns, is illegal and should not be allowed.
According to the Patriarchate’s statement, on Saturday night individuals with Ateret Cohanim broke into the Little Petra Hotel, which overlooks the Omar Bin al-Khattab Square near Jaffa Gate, in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The hotel is traditionally a place of rest of Christian pilgrims and a local money-changing shop owned by the Patriarchate and rented by a Palestinian Jerusalemite at the hotel’s entrance.
“This act of trespassing was done illegally and is an assault on local businesses and properties in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem. The actors did not have an eviction notice and therefore took law into their own hands and subsequently committed a criminal offense,” said the Patriarchate in its statement on the intrusion.
It noted that there were some reports that Israeli police officers have intentionally ignored the illegal activities of Ateret Cohanim at the hotel.
The Patriarchate warned of this “extremely dangerous” break-in and cautioned against its implications on stability.
“This act is extremely dangerous as it regards community relations on the ground. Acting in this illegally aggressive manner against a known Christian property and an Arab business –particularly ahead of Easter and Ramadan - could likely ignite local hostilities similar to what was witnessed last year in Sheikh Jarrah. Not to mention the timing that Mati Dan and his organisation, Ateret Cohanim, are choosing on the eve of Secretary Blinken’s arrival in the region.”
While the Patriarchate said that it was sparing no effort to stop such intrusions and takeovers through legal means, it voiced fears that such intrusions could ignite a very turbulent scenario.
“In response to this illegal activity, local residents, business owners, and priests are demanding definitive action. Patriarch Theophilos III has been consulting heavily with the Council of Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem and receiving counsel from all sides. The Church is doing all that it can to stop these actions, protect the tenants, and come to a lawful and peaceful resolution. However, there is tremendous pressure to address these actions in a powerful way. The Church fears certain actions could quickly escalate and ignite a very turbulent scenario in the Old City.”
The Patriarchate called on Israeli police to “act fairly” and not give a blind eye to such criminal activities.
“Given this was an illegal break-in without any legal procedure or due process, the Patriarch and the Heads of Churches call on the Jerusalem police to act fairly and in accordance with their power. There have been reports that the police do not want to get involved in the issue, but standing idly by is not an appropriate response in the face of criminal activity, particularly that which is ongoing. The Patriarch requests that the police act to evict Ateret Cohanim and revert the position to what it was prior to the break-in until the ongoing legal proceedings conclude and are finalised.”
Members of Ateret Cohanim took possession of the Petra Hotel near the Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem on Sunday morning after an 18 year legal battle between the Jewish association and the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, Ha’aretz reported.
In June 2019, The Jerusalem District Court ruled that Ateret Cohanim had legal rights over three large areas in strategic locations in the Old City of Jerusalem, currently populated by mostly Arab residents.
In 2004, three foreign real estate companies signed under a veil of great secrecy three different contracts with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate which owned the assets.
The publication of the deal in 2005 led to a crisis in the Greek Church in Jerusalem, which ended in unprecedented dismissal of the patriarch Irenaios Skopelitis. His successor, Theophilus III, tried to deny the deal and cancel it, but the Supreme Court upheld it.