“Jerusalem would not be Jerusalem without a vibrant Armenian community”

By Hannah McCarthy, Jerusalem, The Irish Times, 26 November 2023

It’s almost midnight and a group of people nervously talk among themselves on Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate Road in Jerusalem’s old city. One man holds a muzzled dog, while another speaks anxiously on a phone. The group becomes agitated as an Israeli police car drives down the narrow street towards the car park that lies on land owned by the local Armenian church.

Inside the car park, about 200 local residents of the Armenian quarter are gathered at the site that they say is under threat from an Israeli-Australian property developer. Known as the Cow’s Garden, the site includes a seminary, community hall, five homes and represents 25 per cent of the Armenian quarter’s land in the old city. Surrounded by historic ramparts, the car park is an important space for the 1,000 Armenians who still live within the old city and a possible site for affordable housing.

Many protesters are descendants of those displaced by the Armenian genocide committed by Turkish Ottomans more than a century ago, although the Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back more than 1,600 years. “There were contacts between Armenia and Palestine even before Christ, and the Cathedral of St James – which stands today at the heart of Jerusalem’s Armenian community – was founded around 420 AD,” says Matthew Teller, author of Nine Quarters of Jerusalem. Like Palestinians in the old city, Armenians are technically stateless and deemed residents rather than full citizens of Israel, after its forces occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967.

The Armenian community’s future is under threat after its local religious leader, known as a patriarch, Nourhan Manougian, entered into a controversial deal in 2021 to lease church land to Xana Capital, a United Arab Emirates company owned by an Israeli-Australian property developer who plans to build a hotel. The developer did not respond to a request for comment sent on LinkedIn.

Local resident Kegham Balian says the deal undervalued the old city site and should never have been agreed to without the community’s consent. One priest who was heavily involved in the deal has since been defrocked and after significant backlash, Manougian says he cancelled the deal with Xana Capital last month – although members of the community have not yet seen the letter cancelling the lease.

Diggers remain at the site, after arriving earlier this month and knocking down one wall and digging up in one section of the car park.

Despite the deal supposedly being cancelled and no court order enforcing the lease, armed Israeli settlers turned up at the car park on November 5th with dogs and pepper spray; while diggers remain at the site, after arriving earlier this month and knocking down one wall and digging up in one section of the car park. The Armenian community rallied in response and set up a 24-hour watch to prevent further demolition, which senior church leaders in Jerusalem criticised as “illegal actions”.

On this night, those gathered at the car park were joined by patriarch Manougian – who arrived in a black Mercedes and refused to speak to these pages – and several priests who led locals in prayers. “We’re peaceful and we get on with our Jewish and Palestinian neighbours,” says Balian, “but if we don’t make a stand here, the entire Cow’s Garden will be gone.”

Earlier that evening, Setrag Balian says the Israeli police arrived with a private security company and told them that if they didn’t leave the site, they would be forced to by Israeli soldiers. The next day armed settlers arrived again, accompanied by Israeli police who arrested three Armenians while demanding they produce evidence that the land is theirs.

An Israeli military spokesperson referred The Irish Times to the Israeli police for comment, who said: “The Israel Police is not a party to civil or contractual disputes and it is not part of its role. Upon receiving reports or complaints in suspicion of a criminal offence, they are dealt with by the police accordingly.”

Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate Road is one of the main routes Jewish worshippers take to the Western Wall. Photograph: Hannah McCarthy

The Armenian Quarter sits beside the old city’s Jewish Quarter and includes one of the main routes to the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites.

Israeli lawyer Daniel Seidemann, who founded Terrestrial Jerusalem which tracks development that harms the status and stability of the contested city, says that “settlers are interested in creating an uninterrupted bridge between Jaffa Gate and the Jewish quarter of the city” and describes this as dovetailing with a wider strategy backed by the Israeli authorities to encircle the old city with settlements and biblically-inspired settlement projects. As examples, he cites Israeli encroachment in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheik Jarrah and proposals for a settler-run national park on the Mount of Olives.

Multiple properties in Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian neighbourhoods have become embroiled in opaque transactions often involving shell companies which sometimes lie dormant for years before groups aligned with settlers take legal action to force possession through the Israeli courts.

With media attention focused on the war in Gaza and in the West Bank, Seidemann believes settlers see an opportunity to quickly take possession of the strategic Armenian site. “What is happening there is not only a threat to the community, it is a threat to the integrity of the city,” he says. “Jerusalem would not be Jerusalem without a vibrant Armenian community.”

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