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Christian leaders protest sale of Jerusalem church land to settler group

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III (C) stands with other Christian leaders for prayer outside a hostel near Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on July 11, 2019
AFP
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Jerusalem (AFP)

Christian leaders on Thursday protested the sale of properties owned by the Greek Orthodox church to a Jewish pro-settlement group in mainly Palestinian areas of Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

Israel's top court gave final approval on June 11 to the 2004 sale of three buildings located in east Jerusalem's Old City to businesses linked to the Ateret Cohanim organisation.

The group works to "Judaise" east Jerusalem in its entirety by purchasing real estate in Palestinian areas through front companies.

The deal made Ateret Cohanim the owner of the majority of properties located between the Old City's Jaffa Gate and Arab market.

On Thursday, Christian leaders including Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus III prayed "for peace" in Arabic, Greek and English outside two hostels near Jaffa Gate in the Christian quarter that have been taken over by Jewish settlers.

They expressed support for the tenants set to be evicted and the patriarch denounced the actions of "extremist groups trying to weaken the unity and identity of the Christian neighbourhood".

"The settlers want to take over our heritage," the spokesman for the Greek Orthodox Church, Issa Musleh, told AFP, claiming the sale was only made possible by forged documents.

The sale triggered Palestinian anger and led to the 2005 dismissal of Patriarch Irineos I.

The church has brought charges against Ateret Cohanim, claiming the properties were acquired illegally and without its permission.

Palestinians have often accused the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of selling or leasing its properties to Israel.

"We are ashamed of the actions of the (current) patriarch," Theophilus III, a Christian leader who asked to remain anonymous told AFP.

"We know there are many properties that have been sold."

Israel seized mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.

It now considers the entire city its capital, while Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Some 320,000 Palestinians live in east Jerusalem, while the Israeli settler population there has grown to 210,000.

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