Atallah Hanna, the only Palestinian archbishop in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, has rightly warned that Israel's long-standing goal is to "empty" Jerusalem of its Palestinians.Pandora's box
Nonetheless, the foreign Christian leaderships are at least in part to blame for opening up a Pandora's box on land matters in Jerusalem and elsewhere.
They have treated their extensive holdings, much of it land and property entrusted to them by Palestinian Christians and overseas pilgrims, as chips in a game of real-estate poker. Israel has been looking for a chance to raise the stakes.
The tax exemption was derived from the charitable status of the churches' spiritual mission and their outreach work with Palestinian communities that included the provision of schools and hospitals.
But increasingly the churches have downgraded their charitable works and diversified into other, more clearly commercial ventures, such as shops, offices and restaurants. Pilgrimage hostels were redeveloped into well-appointed and profitable hotels.
Part of the money was then siphoned off to the mother countries rather then reinvested in strengthening local Palestinian communities. Meanwhile, the Greek Orthodox Church has been cashing in its holdings in Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank, selling long-term leases, and in some cases the title deeds, on these lands to private Israeli developers and settler organizations.
According to the Orthodox Central Council, real estate deals over the past decade may have earned the Greek Patriarchate more than $100m. Most local Christians are wondering where all that money went. Their communities certainly haven't seen it.
Israel was squarely behind the transactions when the church was selling lands on which Palestinian families lived. Settlers, rather than the churches, did the dirty work of carrying out evictions.
But then the churches got greedier still. They started selling future leases on lands in West Jerusalem that had housed Israeli Jews since the 1950s. The investors are now preparing to turf out these Jews from their homes too, so that the prime real-estate locations can be redeveloped more profitably.
The Israeli government was enthusiastic about the evictions of Palestinian Christians, but has drawn a thick red line at the eviction of Jews. That provided the impetus for the new legislation to let Israel seize lands and properties leased by the churches.
The bill may have been shelved temporarily, but it or something similar will resurface because the problem it addresses has not gone away.Betrayal of Muslims
In their protest statement, the churches not only ignored their years of unthinking collusion with Israel against Palestinian Christians, but also betrayed any lingering solidarity with Palestinian Muslims.
They suggested that Christians had been singled out for attack by what they termed Israel's "unprecedented" policies targeting their financial interests. They added: "This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe."
In fact, the churches have been handled with kid gloves compared to the treatment of Palestinian Muslims and their religious institutions since 1948.
Christian endowment land may be under threat now, but almost all properties in a similar endowment for Muslims -- the Waqf -- were seized by Israel at the Jewish state's birth. Muslim communities lost these lands and properties -- in effect, their welfare net -- 70 years ago.
The fact is Palestinian Christians were long ago abandoned by their churches, which preferred to avoid a serious clash with Israel that would harm their larger interests.
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