Theophilos III, the Greek patriarch of Jerusalem, in his first meeting with Pope Francis, expressed concern on Wednesday over what he calls a “disturbing new situation in the Holy Land.”
At the Vatican meeting, Theophilos cited two issues in which he claims the “historic rights of the Christian community are being undermined.”
The first is a Jerusalem District Court ruling from August that the purchase of three major compounds adjacent to Jaffa Gate in the Old City were carried out legally and, as a result, were transferred from the Greek Orthodox Church to the right-wing Ateret Kohanim Yeshiva.
The second issue is a bill proposed by the Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria, signed by 40 members of Knesset across the political spectrum, that seeks to nationalize lands owned by churches in west Jerusalem, many of which recently were sold to private entrepreneurs.
Heads of church in Jerusalem recently published an open letter protesting these two issues and the patriarch called on the pope to act to help seek reversal of the court decision and quash the legislative initiative.
“In this regard, we have come to Rome not in our capacity as the patriarch of one Church only, but in the name of all the heads of the churches and Christian communities of the Holy Land,” he said in his address.
“We, to whom the pastoral oversight of the Christian communities of the Holy Land have been entrusted, have met and are fully united in opposition to what we see as an attempt to change the provisions and spirit of the historic status quo and the delicate balance that must exist if the Holy Land is to be sustained in its integrity as a region where many peoples can live and flourish and be witnesses to the divine-human encounter of which the holy sites are a tangible sign.
“We are encouraging all to assist us in opposing the draft bill and in rectifying a wrongfully concluded judgment, thus giving a clear message of international support to the Christian presence in the Holy Land and the wider Middle East. In this way, we shall help in the best way we can to ensure that our region remains what it has always been, a place where peoples of many cultures and religions may live in peaceful coexistence and mutual regard,” he said.
The Vatican responded to the request, saying it was available to follow the matters “in the most appropriate manner.”
The Holy See listened to the observations of Patriarch Theophilos and his accompanying delegation and assured them that the Holy See follows with attention and concern all issues and actions which affect the Old City of Jerusalem and the status quo,” it said in a statement.
The Greek Orthodox Church has been under fire over the large-scale land deals it has conducted with real-estate entrepreneurs in recent years in the capital and other locations in Israel. In some cases, the identity of the buyers is unknown, while in others the intentions of the real-estate entrepreneurs is unclear.
This has led to a situation in which thousands of Jerusalem residents in Jerusalem are living under uncertainty regarding their homes, and some have had difficulties sell their properties or even installing an elevator in their buildings because of the situation.
Azaria told The Jerusalem Post in September that her bill aims to prevent exploitation of residents who live on these properties, and does not intend to weaken the Christian presence in the capital.
However, criticism of the patriarch is also coming from his own community.
Earlier this month, Peter Habash, an activist in the Greek Orthodox community told Haaretz: “These are not sales, this theft. These are trust properties, they should not be sold. “Trust is wakf [in Arabic], and wakf means standing still – and it should stay in the hands of the Church for the benefit of the community.”