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Palestinians mark Orthodox Christmas amid boycott calls

2 min

Jerusalem (AFP)

A row over land sales threatened to put a damper on Orthodox Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem on Saturday, with three Palestinian municipalities calling on the public to stay away.

The municipalities of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, all in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, called for the boycott over Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox patriarch allegedly allowing controversial real estate sales.

Theophilos III was expected on Saturday afternoon to lead a traditional Christmas procession to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, which Christians believe marks the birthplace of Jesus.

The mayor of the Christian town of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, said he wanted Theophilos removed from his post over controversial sales of church land to Israeli settlement groups in mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem.

"Our move today is a protest against the patriarch over the sale of land of the Orthodox," mayor Nicola Khamis told AFP.

Palestinian state news agency WAFA however said president Mahmud Abbas and prime minister Rami Hamdallah were expected to attend Saturday's procession.

The church elected Theophilos in 2005 after dismissing his predecessor Irineos over an alleged multi-million-dollar sale of church land to Jewish buyers.

But Khamis says the practice continues.

"Theophilos ignored all the demands and continued selling this land even if the (Christian) majority is against it," he said.

"Today we are taking a stand to say the patriarch must stop the selling of the land."

Property transactions with Jewish buyers anger Palestinians, who see Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state.

In August, Theophilos himself denounced an Israeli court ruling upholding deals made before his appointment between the church and Israeli pro-settlement organisation Ateret Cohanim for two hotel properties near the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City of east Jerusalem.

He said the church would appeal to Israel's supreme court over the ruling.

According to Israeli media, the 2004 agreements were for 99-year leases on hotel properties near Jaffa Gate.

The church went to court against Ateret Cohanim, claiming the deals were signed illegally and without its authorisation.

The Greek Orthodox Church is the biggest and wealthiest Christian Church in the Holy Land.

Its Jerusalem patriarchate commands massive wealth, largely in land portfolios in Israel, the occupied West Bank and Jordan.

Eastern Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7, while those in the West observe it on December 25 due to differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars.

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