Jerusalem's Armenian community fights to defend precious space in the Old City

Residents of the dwindling Armenian Quarter are braving the winter this Christmas to stand guard against developers who want to take their property in shady circumstances

Jerusalem's Armenians claim Gaza war is shielding a land grab

Jerusalem's Armenians claim Gaza war is shielding a land grab
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Christmas is rarely this quiet in Jerusalem’s Old City. The war in Gaza has kept visitors from abroad away. Local Christians, most of whom are Palestinian, are choosing not to celebrate publicly as Gazans continue to be killed only 50 miles away.

The south-western corner of the Old City is different. In the car park of the Armenian Quarter, 10 men play cards loudly, smoke and boil soup in a plywood structure festooned with Armenian flags.

They belong to a community that has shrunk in recent decades to about only 1,000 people.

On a cold evening in December, the atmosphere was convivial but the raincoats and protective goggles hanging by the entrance indicate a far more serious side to their presence.

“Those are in case of pepper spray,” says Hagop Djernazian, a leader of the Save the Armenian Quarter movement.

Mr Djernazian and his fellow community members are guarding a plot of land that is the subject of a contentious property dispute, involving a private developer’s plan to build a hotel on the site, which makes up 25 per cent of the entire quarter.

The land in question encompasses the community's car park and the seminary. Activists say both are vital for the community's survival.

The deal would also hand over to developers a private garden for the Patriarch and a number of homes.

Most significant of all, the transaction would mean that a vast space in the Old City – one of the flashpoints of the Israel-Palestine conflict – would no longer be in the hands of local Christians, a community whose numbers and influence have been dwindling in recent decades.

Many fear that losing this particular area puts the Armenian community one step closer to extinction.

The struggle has pitted a local community, most of them the descendants of genocide survivors, against a confusing web of property dealers, allegedly corrupt church officials who signed off on the agreement and, seemingly, Israeli settlers.

If the deal goes through, Mr Djernazian says the community's very presence in the Old City is under threat. It would be another blow to Holy Land Christians, who have been leaving in droves in recent decades.

“We’ve been sleeping here for more than a month to guard the area 24/7, somewhere between six and 10 of us, depending on the day,” Mr Djernazian says.

“I’ve only slept in my house twice during the past month and a half.”

He now sleeps on camping equipment on top of the car park’s cold tarmac, much of it recently chewed up in a recent standoff.

The tent was set up after bulldozers and guards, some of them armed, turned up to the site in late October and began knocking down walls. They came the same day the Armenian Patriarch bowed to pressure from the community and signed a letter cancelling the original property deal that would have signed over the land to developers who plan to build the luxury hotel.

Danny Rothman, a figure at the heart of the deal about whom very little is known, was also there in October. Mr Rothman declined to comment on the reason for his presence and the property deal at the time.

He was met with a large crowd of community members, many of whom sit in the tent today. They are lying back on sofas, mostly relaxing, but occasionally leaving the warmth to survey a makeshift fence of rubble and barbed wire that protects the section of the car park most under threat.

Just outside the tent, a scraggly Christmas tree is planted in a large mound of yet more rubble. At the very top is another Armenian flag.

Weeks after the confrontation, a picture emerged of Mr Rothman appearing to sit with senior figures from Ateret Cohanim, a high-profile settler organisation that is behind the takeover of a number of non-Jewish properties in the Old City.

At the time of the last confrontation, The National spoke to Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli anti-settlement activist and lawyer, who said “the whole thing stinks”.

“I’ve said to my friends in the international community, ignore the legalities for now,” he said.

Speaking about the dangers of the surge in hostility in October, Mr Seidemann added: “There are hundreds of members of a community confronting armed [Israeli guards] with dogs and weapons. It’s on the brink of an explosion.

"The last thing we need is an eruption of convulsive violence in Jerusalem. Sort out the legal issues later – make this go away.”

The involvement of settlers is only one side of the story, however. The most bitter issue for those standing guard in the tent was how church authorities allowed this catastrophe to happen to the institution they are supposed to shepherd.

“The patriarchate is still not co-operating with our local and international legal teams,” Mr Djernazian says.

“This case will ultimately go to court and when that happens we need full transparency from the institution that signed the papers. That’s not happening, which is our biggest concern right now.”

For now, there is a sense among the local community that they are the ones who must shoulder the burden of protecting their heritage in the Holy Land this Christmas.

If they can keep doing so with the same level of enthusiasm, Mr Djernazian is optimistic the community will win.

"We have the will. We believe in this just struggle. I’d be even more optimistic if the patriarchate agreed to sit around the same table with out lawyers. But we know our strategy and the things we need to do as a community.”

Updated: December 22, 2023, 6:00 PM