The battle to save Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter

In-depth: Armenian lawyers and the diaspora community in Jerusalem are uniting their efforts to push back against secretive Israeli land deals.

Yerevan, Armenia – There are mounting concerns in Armenia regarding a controversial land lease agreement in East Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter, with many fearing the issue goes well beyond just a commercial deal.

In 2021, a land leasing agreement was signed between the Armenian Patriarchate and a private company owned by a Jewish Australian investor for the area known as the Cows’ Garden.

Details of the contract were revealed only last year, causing apprehension among the Armenian community. The 99-year lease agreement encompasses 11,500 m2 and is almost 25% of the Armenian Quarter.

“Our concerns escalated when we discovered that the businessman who signed the contract has connections with Israeli extremist groups,” Hagop Djernazian, an active member of the Armenian community in Jerusalem, told The New Arab.

"This is not just a hotel itself, but also a set of restaurants, cafes, and other places of entertainment. This means that the entirety of the Armenian Quarter is endangered" 

The deal was finalised without obtaining approval from the Synod, a local assembly of church officials, and the General Assembly, which is a violation of the Armenian Patriarchate’s Charter. It is one of the reasons why Armenians consider the agreement illegal.

The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem says it sent a letter to the partner company, Xana Gardens Ltd, informing it about its intention to cancel the agreement, as well as submitting documents about its request to the Israeli courts, where the case is now pending.

Since then, Armenians patrolling the area have been attacked twice by armed Israeli settlers.

“If the company signed the contract legally, why did it have to start attacks and try to intimidate? Instead of coming to the Patriarchate and clarifying its rights, it begins to exert force on the community,” said Hagop Djernazian.

The symbolism of Mount Zion

The Cows’ Garden is located on the historic Mount Zion, in the southwest corner of Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter. The loss of the land threatens to sever the connection between the Armenian Quarter and the Christian Quarter, thereby posing a grave risk to a continued Christian presence within the Old City.

According to Archbishop Mikael Ajapahyan, the leader of the Shirak Diocese of Mother See in Armenia, it is no secret that the “Jewish state or Jewish extremism” does not want the presence of Christians or Muslims in Jerusalem.

“Mount Zion is both a pan-Christian holy place and also holy for the Jews. It is no coincidence that the national movement of the Jews is called Zionism, to gather the Jewish people around Mount Zion,” the Holy Father said in the conversation with The New Arab.

“Mount Zion belongs to the Armenians and Armenian church for centuries. This is where the conflict comes from,” he added.

The Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to the 4th century when Armenian monks settled in Jerusalem after the Armenian Kingdom became the first to adopt Christianity as a state religion.

As Archbishop Ajapahyan explained, Mount Zion is a symbol of God’s coming and God’s presence on Earth, and encroachment on Christian territories is very dangerous.

“We tremble for every centimetre of Armenian land because each of them is extremely precious to us,” the Holy Father added.

"In 2021, a land leasing agreement was signed between the Armenian Patriarchate and a private company owned by a Jewish Australian investor for the area known as the Cows' Garden" 

Shady transaction policy

The leasing agreement of the Cows’ Garden is similar to scandals that have mired the Greek Orthodox Church, which has sold church property in Jerusalem to anonymous investors, later identified as Israeli and Jewish businessmen, using front companies.

Middle East expert Armen Petrosyan describes these kinds of transactions as an attempt by the Israeli state to strengthen its position in East Jerusalem.

“After Jerusalem was completely occupied by Israel in 1967, continuous attempts were made by the State of Israel and various pan-Jewish organisations to create Jewish structures in the form of hotels, stores, especially in the area of Christian and Muslim sanctuaries,” Petrosyan said in an interview with The New Arab.

As the expert noted, various shady and corrupt transactions are carried out through individuals to establish a documented Jewish presence in East Jerusalem.

“This policy is not directly executed by the state but is rather under its patronage, implemented with the involvement of private actors. The state operates behind the scenes but naturally demonstrates comprehensive and institutional support for such transactions,” added Petrosyan. Although it is a lease agreement, he sees it as obvious that if the land is yielded it will not be returned to Armenians.

The expert believes that the timing is not coincidental either. “Due to the war in Gaza, nationalistic sentiments are dominant in Israel, facilitating a united position against other nations,” he said.

Uniting Armenian efforts

On 8 December 2023, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, Nourhan Manougian, met with members of the Armenian community and explained that the deal took place without his full knowledge and that he was deceived by a local priest who worked for him, who has now been defrocked.

He promised to do everything in his power to reach a full cancellation of the deal.

The Armenian community of Jerusalem is now being supported by a group of Armenian lawyers working collaboratively with the Centre for Law and Justice ‘Tatoyan’ foundation, which has offices in Yerevan and California.

"After Jerusalem was completely occupied by Israel in 1967, continuous attempts were made by the State of Israel and various pan-Jewish organisations to create Jewish structures in the form of hotels, stores, especially in the area of Christian and Muslim sanctuaries" 

In a conversation with The New Arab, Arman Tatoyan, the director of the foundation, emphasised that the contract contradicts the interests of both the Armenian community and the Patriarchate.

“We had the chance to collect detailed facts about the planned hotel and I have to say that this is not just a hotel itself, but also a set of restaurants, cafes, and other places of entertainment. This means that the entirety of the Armenian Quarter is endangered,” he said, stressing that the execution of the project will result in the eviction of a number of Armenian families.

According to the lawyer, members of the Armenian community in Jerusalem, who he says now serve as guardians of the territory, are doing all they can to protect their interests and the interests of the Armenian Quarter.

The last time Armenians were attacked was on 28 December 2023, when dozens of armed men entered the territory of the Cows’ Garden, resulting in the injury of clergymen from the Patriarchate and members of the local Armenian community. According to witnesses, the police arrived 20 minutes later, which some people saw as intentional․

After the attack, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the governing body of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Armenia, expressed concern about “the ongoing provocative actions around the Cows’ Garden area belonging to the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem”.

“It is obvious that the provocateurs are once again trying to seize the Cows’ Garden area through terror, threats, and force, violating the procedures defined by the law,” the Holy See stated in a news release, expressing hope that “Israeli authorities will legally respond to the criminal actions” and exclude the repetition of similar cases.

“The recent attacks that the whole world could witness were organised. These armed individuals with masks came to impose violence and terrorise people. As lawyers we qualify this as existential danger,” said Arman Tatoyan.

He also stressed that Armenian cultural heritage in the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem is an integral part of Armenian identity. “This is pan-Armenian and that is why the state of Armenia should express its reaction to the situation.”

In response to The New Arab’s written request, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia stated that they closely follow the developments in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. “The RA MFA has always been in favour of combining international efforts aimed at preserving the status quo in Jerusalem for decades.”

Armenian lawyers working on the case maintain constant contact with the Armenian community of Jerusalem and cooperate with all parties involved. They hope that the issue can be solved after the letter of the Patriarch, which detailed its intention to cancel the contract, but if not, they are ready to use international means.

“The only solution for us is a complete cancellation of the contract,” said Hagop Djernazian, stressing that they will continue their struggle until justice prevails.

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