Jerusalem Armenian Patriarchate Official Comments on New Land Lease

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JERUSALEM — The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem is a major property-owner in Jerusalem. Recently a controversy was sparked about plans of the Patriarchate to lease a piece of property for 99 years in order to build a hotel on what is called the Cows’ Garden or Goveroun Bardez, a large stretch of land in the Armenian Quarter near the Armenian convent. Several articles in the Armenian press, including a column in the Mirror-Spectator by Harut Sassounian, criticized this decision.

 

Very Rev. Baret Yeretzian, the director of Real Estate for the patriarchate for the last seven years, and thus involved in negotiating this lease, responded to those criticisms in an interview and provided his own perspective. He also has issued a communiqué (https://armenian-patriarchate.com/2021/09/07/communique-september-7-2021/).

Managing Patriarchate’s Properties

Fr. Yeretzian related that the Armenian Patriarchate owns property in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Bethlehem and many other places. He said, “We have many issues connected with our lands, even concerning our neighbors, in many places. For us, the most important thing is not to leave these lands vacant. When they are left vacant, everyone’s eyes are on those properties. Investment for us is the most important means to secure our lands and the future of our patriarchate.”

In his tenure in office, Yeretzian said there have been more than 20 lawsuits concerning property, of which nearly all were won by the patriarchate. Tenants try to avoid paying rent, some sublet or rent out the Armenian Patriarchate’s property to others without permission, and others try to usurp land outright. Yeretzian said that after sending warnings, if there is no response, the next step is to take such people to court.

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Despite all that is heard about the Israeli government, he said that it does not intervene in such matters and the courts’ decisions have been respected by the government. In Palestine too the patriarchate has won its court cases.

Only one case was lost in Yeretzian’s time. There were two stores together, run by two brothers. The patriarchate won one suit and lost the other. This was about rental payments, not the land itself, he explained.

In sum, he said, “We do not act with davul zurna [i.e. loudly and publicly]. We go to court and spend thousands to defend our rights. Do people outside even know what happens here?”

There have been cases when the city government has used land belonging to the Armenian Patriarchate through eminent domain. Despite rumors to the contrary, Yeretzian said that such land, though used for other purposes, remains in the name of the patriarchate. He gave the example of the land around St. Philip’s Fountain or Spring, which the government took in 1977 for a “green belt” or park. The government does not have the right to build on this land without permission from the patriarchate, to which it still belongs, though the latter also cannot build on it at present.

Yeretzian asserted that the financial situation of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem is the best it has been for many years and it is buying back its former properties. Apparently a law was passed by the Israeli government providing for rights of “protected tenancy” which applies to Armenians living in houses belonging to the patriarchate for at least three generations. Initially these Armenians were given homes for a minimal annual payment, but through this law, they were given the right to sell the house they lived in if it were outside of the Armenian convent proper. Fr. Yeretzian said that the patriarchate has bought back 4 or 5 houses by now. There is a different system in the part of Jerusalem occupied by Israel in 1967, where agreements with renters on the patriarchate’s property eventually will allow the patriarchate to set its rents freely. Yeretzian pointed to such action and stressed, “I want to say that we are doing everything to retain our properties.”

At the same time, he observed that the patriarchate was not receiving any aid from the outside and needed to maximize its sources of income, which was why it signed the hotel deal. He said, “We have many expenses and no revenues from outside. We want our monastery to be self-sufficient, to be able to pay all our expenses. We have hundreds of employees. Every day, meals are prepared for hundreds of people. We have schools, a manuscript library and a library to maintain.”

He exclaimed: “If the nation [azk] thinks this belongs to the nation, let people carry out their national responsibility! We do what we can. I can speak only of my time period: not one penny has been lost from us. What we do is investment and protect our lands.”

For hundreds of years, the monastic Armenian Brotherhood of Sts. James preserved its rights with or without large numbers of Armenians living in the local community, Fr. Yeretzian said. Today, he estimated that there were around 1,000 to 1,500 Armenians living in Jerusalem. He said, “It is our sacred responsibility to continue to preserve our rights. For this reason, we must strengthen this brotherhood and financially make it independent.” He stressed, “We are neutral with governments and states. We do not intervene in politics. Our only concerns are the Holy Places, our community, our monastery and our future.”

Goveroun Bardez

Yeretzian said that the issue of how to use the Goveroun Bardez property was not a new one but had been discussed at various times many years before he took office. For example, he mentioned an attempt to build an Intercontinental Hotel while Archbishop Yeghishe Derderian was patriarch (1960-90). Evidently the sides could not agree on the financial terms so it did not come to fruition. Much later, Yeretzian said that investors from Jordan, Palestine and Russia wanted to lease the property for 99 years.

Asked why the current lease is for so many years, he responded, “If you don’t give it for 99 years they are not interested. People will be spending large sums of money and will not do it otherwise.” When asked whether the land might be lost to the patriarchate after such a long lease, he said that both the land and the building will remain registered under the name of the Armenian Patriarchate. Fr. Yeretzian said, “We are against the selling of property. We do not sell land.”

There are periodic attempts by Arabs and Jews to obtain control of lands belonging to the Armenians and this requires constant vigilance. For example, there was an attempt about 15 years ago by Arabs who claimed the lands of the garden belonged to them. Supposedly they had documents to this effect, but the Armenian Patriarchate took them to court and won the case. Fr. Yeretzian said.

More recently, but prior to the hotel project, a contract was signed in 2020 with the patriarchate by the Jerusalem city government for a 10-year period to use some of the same land of Goveroun Bardez as a parking lot. A small part of this land had been used in a “provisory” fashion for parking for Armenian Quarter residents in the past.

Yeretzian said, “For some fifty years this land was only a pile of garbage. We succeeded in getting it cleaned and turned it into a regular parking lot.” The contract made with the municipality of Jerusalem stipulated the latter would spend around 2 million dollars to clean up this land, removing dirt and doing paving, and this sum was registered as a loan. In return for this expenditure, the parking lot that was created will be used by both Jews and Armenians, while remaining under the control of the patriarchate.

While the lot was to open in May of this year, a mosaic was found during the preparations, and so all of the spaces have not been finished. There will be a list of names of the users, and Armenians will constitute at least half. According to a communique of the Patriarchate, there will be at least 180 parking spaces total.

If the hotel is indeed built by the new investor, there is a clause in the 10-year contract allowing for it to be voided. The municipality still benefits in this case, Fr. Yeretzian said, because it will both get a new hotel and receive taxes from it through the years.

The hotel deal was concluded in July of this year with a company belonging to a Jewish Australian named Dany Rubinstein. Fr. Yeretzian said Rubinstein has lived in Dubai for many years, and his corporation is based there. Yeretzian asserted that the Arabs would have not allowed him to do business for years in the United Arab Emirates if he were doing improper things in Israel (i.e., which would ultimately adversely affect Arabs).

His business will invest $200 million in the project. Both the building and the land will be registered in the name of the patriarchate. Fr. Yeretzian noted that the process of registering land is itself an expensive one, which the investor is obliged to do for the patriarchate according to the contract. Elsewhere too, the Armenian Patriarchate has documentation of ownership for many parcels of land, but some of them are still not officially registered due to the lengthy and expensive process.

According to Sassounian, the down payment for the hotel deal was $1 million, but Sassounian does not reveal his source. When asked about the financial details of the agreement, Fr. Yeretzian only stated that he could not give all the details publicly, but that the patriarchate would receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent, plus yearly percentages with scheduled increases.

The contract was approved by Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, Grand Sacristan Sevan Gharibian, and Fr. Yeretzian. Sassounian’s anonymous source claims the entire brotherhood of St. James should have approved it.

Fr. Yeretzian commented, “The Synod had made the decision for the parking lot renovations. All Synod members have been aware of the hotel negotiation too. It has been an ongoing one. It is an internal matter to our brotherhood and patriarchate. The brotherhood can speak out on it if it wants to. The plan is not a new one. Only the persons asking for the contract have changed, but the plans are the same. Due to the coronavirus, we have not been able to come together as a group for meetings. We did have a meeting, but not with large numbers.” He added, in order to make the difficulties of the situation clear, that even religious services could not be held due to coronavirus, and most of the members of the brotherhood had gotten sick from covid (now they are all vaccinated).

Fr. Yeretzian said that there were two other similar land contract issues that are still in process and have been under discussion or negotiation for long periods of time, perhaps 15 years or so, on the Mount of Olives and Tel Aviv.

He said that at the crux of the current criticism of the Goveroun Bardez hotel project were local Armenians who had been stealing or conducting other illegal actions against the patriarchate and had been punished through court cases. He said, “There are Armenians among us, families, who do not pay their rents. They want to usurp our properties in one way or another. We file lawsuits against them. Others want to sell our properties to non-Armenians. These are the ones who speak against us. We are defending our rights.”

A second cause was the envy of the current good situation of the monastery. He said, “This envy leads many to disparage us outside. I think many of them think we do not understand business and only they do. We have five lawyers, we have accountants, auditors, our synod, the patriarch, and many other bodies. They do not know that we are constantly researching and investigating. They think this is a simple matter.”

He asked where the people in the outside world were when help could have been used. For forty years, he said no major financial aid has been given. Instead of advice, he asked that these people give money, while the brotherhood spends its money to hold onto its lands. If anyone makes accusations of bribery or corruption, he said they should prove it, but there is no such thing.

He remarked that there are many false rumors circulating. For example, there is a police station which supposedly was lost to the patriarchate due to a 99-year lease. Yeretzian said this was a fabrication, as the police building never belonged to the Armenians but instead to the Ottoman government, and was later successively transferred to the governments in control of that territory.

(See an editorial of the Mirror-Spectator on this topic in the current issue.)

 

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