The Armenian quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City is facing its biggest crisis in a long time. A Jewish businessman with connections to the radical settler movement is poised to develop a quarter of the neighbourhood’s territory, with plans to build a luxury hotel. If this goes ahead, it will significantly change part of Jerusalem’s Old City and hasten the demographic shift towards the city’s Jewish population which has been happening for some years.
The Armenian quarter actually makes up one-sixth of the Old City (the other quarters being the Muslim, the Christian, and the Jewish) and the Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back to the 4th century. Together with the neighbouring Christian quarter, it is a stronghold for the city’s small Christian minority. The threat of a takeover of parts of the quarter by Jewish settlers is widely seen as altering the demographic status quo to favour Israel’s interests.
In 2021, the Armenian patriarch of Jerusalem, Nourhan Manougian, agreed a 98-year lease over part of the Armenian quarter with the developers. The agreement covers a significant area that today includes a parking lot, buildings belonging to the office of the Armenian church leader – known as the patriarchate – and the homes of five Armenian families.
News of the deal prompted strong protests among the neighbourhood’s Armenians last year. Such was the depth of feeling that in October, the patriarch and the other church leaders felt compelled to cancel the agreement. This led to violent confrontations between settlers and local Armenians.
After a few quiet weeks, fighting broke out again at the end of December when more than 30 men armed with stones and clubs reportedly attacked the Armenians who had been guarding the area for several weeks.
The dispute has now gone to court. The question is whether the lease agreement is valid or whether the unilateral termination makes the agreement void. The patriarchate has engaged lawyers – local and from Armenia and the US – who will present its case that the agreement was not entered into properly because of irregularities in the contract.
Changing East Jerusalem’s demography
This is not a single incident. Since the 1967 six-day War, when the whole of Jerusalem came under Israeli control, there has been a concerted effort to change the demography in the traditionally Arab East Jerusalem.
In many places the authorities are evicting the Arab families who have lived there for decades with the explanation that they lack documents that they own the house. Then a Jewish family moves in.
This change of the demography of East Jerusalem happens through evictions, demolitions and buildings restrictions. This is also happening in Jerusalem’s iconic and touristic Old City.
Almost 20 years ago, there was a minor scandal when it emerged that the Greek Orthodox patriarchate, a large property owner, had entered into a long lease agreement with a Jewish settler organisation regarding two historic hotels.
Now we have a similar incident concerning the Armenian patriarchate. Selling or renting out property to Jewish settlers for a long time is viewed extremely negatively by the Palestinians, who have long fought against illegal Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas.
East Jerusalem is of vital importance to the Palestinians. In proposed plans for a two-state solution, it is the intended capital of a future Palestinian state. Decisively changing the demography there is therefore a priority goal for some in Israel – including the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who doesn’t want a two-state solution.
This conflict also underlines an old problem with the Jerusalem’s Christian churches – namely the gap between the leadership and the people. Old churches are by nature hierarchical and the leaders at the top rule supremely. In Jerusalem there is an additional problem in that the church leaders are not always drawn from the local population.
The largest Christian denomination in the Holy Land is the Greek Orthodox Church. Its members are largely Arabs, but the patriarch and the other leading prelates are Greeks.
Nourhan Manougian, the current and 97th Armenian patriarch of Jerusalem, was born in Syria to an Armenian family. The Armenian patriarchate has been accused of corruption and illegitimate sale of property in the past, long before the current crisis.
If the Armenians lose this battle and the settler movement is able to gain control of such a key site, it will harm a vulnerable small minority. And the settler campaign to colonise East Jerusalem under Jewish control will have achieved yet another victory.