Armenians battle to save their quarter in Jerusalem due to lease deal

(Photo: © Peter Kenny)Jerusalem minarets and spires on Feb. 14, 2016.

There are mounting concerns in Armenia and among Armenians 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, wrote Gaiane Yenokian in The New Arab.

Details of the contract only became known in 2023, causing apprehension among the Armenian community.

The 99-year lease agreement encompasses 11,500 m2 and is almost 25 percent of the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem.

"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.

The Cows' Garden is 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 of Jerusalem.

While Christmas may be a distant memory for many, the Armenians of Jerusalem has within recent day just held their annual celebration on Jan. 19.

This year, the holiday was overshadowed by the war in Gaza and the ongoing threat to the survival of the community from the deeply controversial real estate deal, Yolande Knell reported for the BBC.

Many Armenians spent the day celebrating Christmas in an unconventional fashion, joining a sit-in at a tent in their church car park, which is part of a large plot at risk in the Armenian Quarter of the walled Old City.

"This illegal, treacherous land deal actually brought us all together," Setrag Balian, a ceramicist turned activist told the BBC.

Armenians trace their presence in the holy city back to the 4th Century AD. Many of the 2,000-strong community live inside the large, cobble-stoned compound of St James Convent.

In the past, Armenians have been divided by political differences and family fights and there have been rifts between Jerusalemite Armenians and their church leaders who act as employers and landlords for many.

Yet for two months, local Armenians and priests have all been staying in a large, improvised tent here, around-the-clock, to try to block the development going ahead. They eat here and work shifts as guards behind a makeshift barricade decorated with Armenian flags reported Knell for the BBC.

FACING ATTACKS BY CONTRACTORS, SETTLERS

Together, they said they hade seen off attacks by contractors with bulldozers, armed settlers and masked thugs.

In April 2023, facts came to the fore about a 2021 contract secretly signed between the Armenian Patriarch and a Jewish Australian-Israeli developer.

It gave a newly created firm, Xana Gardens, a 98-year lease to build and operate a luxury hotel in an area known as the Cow's Garden.

The deal covered a plot of 11,500 square meter, abutting the ramparts of the south-western corner of the Old City, with an option to take over an even bigger area.

The apparent involvement of known Jewish settlers in attacks alongside other evidence has increased long-held suspicions that a powerful settler organisation is involved in the attempted land takeover.

Ever since Israel captured the Old City and its holy sites from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War, Jewish investors in Israel and overseas have sought to buy properties to try to cement Israeli control over occupied East Jerusalem, reported the BBC.

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