In the midst of the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, another struggle is unfolding in Jerusalem’s Armenian Christian community.
The dispute involves their patriarch, Armenian homes, and an Australian-Israeli businessman aiming to take over the historic Armenian Quarter in the Old City.
The tension escalated last month when Jewish settlers, accompanied by dogs and bulldozers, disrupted a sit-in at a location known as the Cow’s Garden. This site, currently a parking lot, is targeted for development by businessman Danny Rothman for his new hotel.
Rothman’s company, Xana Capital Group, had struck a secret deal in 2021 with the Armenian Christian patriarchate to lease a portion of the Armenian Quarter, causing public uproar. The community protested, leading to the defrocking of a priest overseeing the church’s real estate and questioning the leadership of Patriarch Nourhan Manougian.
Armenians have a rich history in Jerusalem dating back to the fourth century. Their presence in the city includes descendants of pilgrims and refugees fleeing the Armenian genocide. Today, the Armenian Quarter, the smallest division in the Old City, is distinct from the larger Christian Quarter.
The 2,000 Armenians, speaking a unique Jerusalem dialect of Armenian, are represented by the Armenian Patriarchate and the Brotherhood of St. James. Living in church-owned property, they are considered the most peaceful demographic in the Old City, maintaining good relations with both Jewish Israelis and Arab Palestinians.
The current dispute revolves around the Cow’s Garden, a significant piece of land in the highest point of the Old City, along the main path from Jaffa Gate to the Western Wall. The undeveloped space holds historical and economic importance for the Armenians.
The controversial lease deal with Xana grants the company the right to build a luxury hotel complex over the Cow’s Garden, the patriarch’s private garden, and the seminary’s main hall. The 49-year lease allows unilateral renewal for another half-century, raising concerns of bribery and corruption due to the minimal financial return for the patriarchate.
Adding to the community’s worries is the lack of transparency about Rothman’s company, based in Dubai. The deal also coincides with pressures on Christians and Muslims in the Old City and East Jerusalem from Jewish settler groups aiming to ‘Judaize’ the area.
Patriarch Manougian claims he was misled about the deal and has exiled the patriarchate’s real-estate manager. Despite canceling the deal in October, concerns persist about the Armenian character of the quarter.
The dispute parallels a 2005 scandal when the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem was dismissed for a deal with a far-right Jewish settler group. Despite Rothman’s secular Jewish identity, armed settler activists attempted to enforce construction on Nov. 5, employing intimidation tactics that ultimately failed.
Internal politics within the Armenian community play a crucial role, with disagreements over the dismissal of key figures. The community advocates for collaboration with lay managers in decision-making processes to protect their interests.
In a divided Jerusalem, the Armenians emphasize unity to preserve their land. Regardless of external pressures, their goal is to maintain the Armenian identity of the quarter.