A shot from the "Cow's Garden" area in the Armenian Quarter

New Episode Involving Land Dispute Shakes Armenian Community in Jerusalem Again

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JERUSALEM (National Catholic Register) — In the shadow of the war in Gaza, attacks, abuses, and violations by radical groups and sometimes also by law enforcement are taking place and often take a back seat.

A new episode of violence involving a land dispute has shaken the Armenian community in Jerusalem once again.

According to a communique from the Chancellery of the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Jerusalem, on April 3 at about 11 a.m. “an unlawful eviction was initiated by Israeli police on the grounds of the Cows’ Garden” located within the premises of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The stated purpose of this action was to remove the temporary rooms belonging to guards at the main entrance of the parking lot, but “permits or court orders were not presented.”

The area known as Cows’ Garden is a property located in the southeast corner of the Old City of Jerusalem and constitutes approximately 25% of the Armenian Quarter’s total area. It has long been at the center of a legal dispute after a deal was secretly signed in 2021 between the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the real estate company Xana Gardens, with alleged links to Israeli settler interests, for a 49+49-year lease of the property to build a luxury hotel.

According to the “Save the Armenian Quarter” (ArQ) association — a nonviolent movement created to defend properties of the Armenian Patriarchate and represent the Armenian community — the contract is illegal and jeopardizes the existence of the Armenian community in the Holy Land.

What happened April 3 was a sudden escalation of the conflict due to direct intervention by the police, according to a statement by the ArQ. “Israeli settlers representing Xana Gardens were escorted by the Israeli Police into the Cows’ Garden. … This action blatantly disregards the ongoing legal processes and undermines the established status quo,” the statement said.

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After the raid, in which no one was hurt, the Armenian Patriarchate and the Armenian community strongly condemned the police, accusing them of “flagrant violation of legal norms,” “aggressive interference,” and “trampling on the rights of the Armenian community.” Such actions, continues the statement from ArQ, “mark a severe overstep by Israeli law enforcement authorities and an alarming infringement on the property and communal rights of the Armenians.”

The Armenian Patriarchate asked for “answers from the Israeli police and the Israeli government for their participation in the event. Today’s provocations are an attempt to set a precedent against the Armenian Quarter and its lawful lands.”

Since April 2023, several legal actions have been taken both by the Armenian Patriarchate and the ArQ. In particular, two lawsuits were filed before the Jerusalem District Court by the Armenian Patriarchate and by the ArQ to challenge the validity of the agreement.

At a press conference on the evening of the events, Setrag Balian and Hagop Djernazian, the founders of the ArQ, shared some previously unknown details about the two legal proceedings.

On Dec. 26, 2023, the Armenian Patriarchate officially took legal action against Xana Garden, submitting a lawsuit. Even more significant is the legal case initiated by the ArQ on Feb. 18. One of the group’s arguments, Balian highlighted, is that “this land is a ‘waqf’; this land is a trust, this land is an endowment.”

A waqf in Islamic law is a charitable endowment held in trust in which a person donates property or assets for charitable or benevolent purposes. The act of donation is often considered legally irrevocable because it implies the complete transfer of ownership rights from the hands of the donor to the hands of God: The property can’t be sold, bought, inherited, gifted, mortgaged, or transferred. The only exception allowed is if the property ceases to serve the purpose for which it was intended.

Regarding the Cows’ Garden, Balian said that “this trust was established in 1575 by the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Antreas, who bought this land with his own funds and made a waqf for the interest and benefit of the Armenian Christian community in Jerusalem.” Balian considers this a strong argument, because “the trust, legally cannot be sold or leased.”

“We will not accept any future encroachment on this land and we expect Israeli authorities and Israeli police to respect the two lawsuits pending in the Jerusalem District Court,” Djernazian added. “You cannot come out of nowhere and just change the status quo on the ground. You cannot use the current situation and the war to change facts on the ground. This is unacceptable.”

In the shadow of the war in Gaza, in fact, attacks, abuses, and violations by radical groups and sometimes also by law enforcement are taking place and often take a back seat.

That’s why both the Patriarchate and the Armenian community have renewed the appeal not only to the Heads of Churches and all the Christians around the world but also to diplomatic representatives and the international community to stand with the Jerusalemite Armenian community in these difficult times.

“Losing this land,” Djernazian said, “puts in danger the entire Christian community and entire Christian presence in Jerusalem.”

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