Jerusalem’s Armenian community fears erasure after controversial land deal

Jessica Buxbaum

Mondoweiss  /  June 24, 2023

A shady property deal threatens to transform part of the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City into a luxury resort. “It will change the status quo and the entire picture of Jerusalem,” says Armenian activist Hagop Djernazian.

While Palestinians have long fought against land theft, Jerusalem’s centuries-old Armenian community is now facing their own land rights’ crisis as a property deal threatens to transform part of their neighborhood into a luxury resort. 

In July 2021, the Armenian Patriarchate leased approximately 25% of the Armenian Quarter in occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City to an Australian-Israeli investor for 99 years. The land deal received renewed attention in April when it was discovered that the contracted area, known as Hadiqat Al-Baqar (The Garden of Cows), includes homes of five Armenian families, the Armenian seminary, and a parking lot. 

“The area leased is a historical land, which the Armenians have owned for 700 years,” Armenian activist, Hagop Djernazian, told Mondoweiss. “It’s a strategic area located on the highest point in the Old City.” 

The contract was reportedly signed by Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, Grand Sacristan Archbishop Sevan Gharibian, and then-director of the Patriarchate’s real estate department, Fr. Baret Yeretsian.

Yet following the deal’s publicity, Manougian denied responsibility and pinned the blame on Yeretsian — claiming the agreement occurred without his full knowledge. Yeretsian was defrocked and has since fled to Los Angeles, while Manougian has confined himself to the convent as residents protest weekly outside demanding the deal be revoked. The Armenian Patriarchate declined to comment for this story. 

“As an Armenian, the church is our home,” Djernazian said. “Unfortunately now the relations between the community and the church are no longer the same as in the past because this deal violated the constitution of the church.” 

Yeretsian wrote that deal was ratified by the Holy Synod, the church’s supervising body, and the General Assembly of the Saint James Brotherhood, a monastic order of Armenian national church, but according to twelve members of the brotherhood, this is incorrect. 

Instead, they claim the deal was made without the Holy Synod and General Assembly’s consent, thereby nullifying the agreement. According to the church’s bylaws, all real estate transactions must be made with the Holy Synod and General Assembly’s approval. 

A shady deal

Little is known about the contract and the investor involved — Danny Rothman. According to his LinkedIn profile, the businessman who also goes by Rubinstein, chairs Xana Capital Management, a United Arab Emirates-based hotel company. In April, the firm’s sign appeared at the parking lot on the rented land. Rothman’s contact information isn’t available. 

Lease documents haven’t been publicly unveiled nor listed in Israel’s land registry — raising the community’s suspicions that something more sinister is at play. 

What is known is that Rothman plans to develop a high-end hotel on the plot, with One&Only Resorts managing it. One&Only Resorts’ owner, the UAE-based Kerzner International, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did Moshe Safdie, the Israeli architect reportedly designing the hotel. 

Yet Armenians aren’t the only ones in uproar over the lease. In May, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA) paused their recognition of the Patriarchate over the agreement.

“On the political side, the deal undermines the possibility of any political solution to Jerusalem due to its strategic location,” Dimitri Diliani, head of the Palestinian National Christian Coalition, told Mondoweiss. “On the cultural side, it affects the demographic and cultural mosaic balance of the city of Jerusalem in favor of one side at the expense of others.”

In addition to freezing recognition, Diliani said the PA is also working to depose Manougian of his position. 

Outrage over the real estate agreement comes as Jerusalem’s Christians are experiencing heightened levels of violence from Jewish settlers. 

According to Protecting Holy Land Christians, a campaign established by Christian leaders to raise awareness of threats the religious group faces, 2022 was “one of the worst years for Christians in Jerusalem to date.” The organization cited spitting attacks, vandalism, and property theft as mechanisms of erasure. 

Jerusalem’s shrinking Armenian community, which is estimated to be under 1,000, just a sliver of what the population was a century ago, fears a similar fate of displacement as well as part of their neighborhood was sold off to an outsider.

“That’s why we are against this deal,” Djernazian said. “Because it will change the status quo and the entire picture of Jerusalem and the Armenian Quarter.” 

Jessica Buxbaum is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem covering Palestine and the Israeli occupation