By Isabel Debre
JERUSALEM (AP) — A real estate deal in Jerusalem’s Old City, at the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has sent the historic Armenian community there into a panic as residents search for answers about the feared loss of their homes to a mysterious investor.
The 99-year lease of some 25 percent of the Old City’s Armenian Quarter has touched sensitive nerves in the Holy Land and sparked a controversy extending far beyond the Old City walls. The fallout has forced the highest authority of the Armenian Orthodox Church to cloister himself in a convent and prompted a disgraced priest who is allegedly behind the deal to flee to a Los Angeles suburb.
“If they sell this place, they sell my heart,” Garo Nalbandian, an 80-year-old photojournalist, said of the Ottoman-era barracks where he has lived for five decades among a dwindling community of Armenians. Their ancestors came to Jerusalem over 1,500 years ago and then after 1915, when Ottoman Turks killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in what’s widely regarded as the first genocide of the 20th century.
Alarm over the lease spread in April, following a surprise visit by Israeli land surveyors. Word got around that an Australian-Israeli investor, whose company sign appeared on the site, planned to transform the parking lot and limestone fortress of Armenian apartments and shops into an ultra-luxury hotel.
As anger, confusion and fears of possible evictions mounted, the Armenian patriarchate — the body managing the community’s civil and religious affairs — acknowledged that the church had signed away the patch of land. The Armenian patriarch, Nourhan Manougian, alleged that a now-defrocked priest bore full responsibility for the “fraudulent and deceitful” deal that the patriarch said took place without his full knowledge.