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Amid War In Israel, Jerusalem Armenians Enter Standoff Over Holy Land

20 Nov 2023

With the world's attention focused on the fate of Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza strip, ethnic Armenians in nearby Jerusalem are locked in a struggle to hold onto their land in the face of increasing intimidation.

Men linked to XANA Capital (left) speak with a Jerusalem Armenian priest. Several confrontations have taken place since the Patriarchate stated its intention to cancel the agreement.

On the afternoon of November 5, several men wearing Jewish kippahs and armed with assault rifles entered a section of Jerusalem's Armenian Quarter known as the Cow's Garden. Two of the men held barking dogs on leashes as others confronted Armenians who had gathered to prevent access to earthmoving machinery that had recently demolished a wall and torn up asphalt on the land.

In footage captured by an independent journalist, one of armed men said he had brought a weapon because, 'when someone responsible with a gun is here everyone knows there's not gonna be fist-fighting, no one's gonna get into each other's faces, it keeps everyone polite.'

Setrag Balian (right) and other members of the Jerusalem Armenian community are guarding a disputed section of Jerusalem's Armenian Quarter.

The Cow's Garden -- named for its historical use as a livestock grazing area -- is currently used as a carpark, largely by the Armenians who drive to work outside the Old City walls each morning, and makes up a large chunk of the Armenian Quarter inside Jerusalem's walled city.

The land became the focal point of a dispute that has roiled Jerusalem's 2,000-strong Armenian community after it emerged that the Armenian church of Jerusalem leased the Cow's Garden and some other parts of the Armenian Quarter to XANA Capital, a company owned by an Australian-Israeli investor, for nearly a century .

Diggers reportedly hired by XANA Capital are parked alongside a barrier set up by Jerusalem Armenians.

Amid uproar from the local Armenian community, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem attempted to reverse the lease. The church released a statement on November 1 announcing the 'cancellation' of the agreement to lease the Cow's Garden. It's unclear what legal weight such a declaration has next to a signed lease agreement. Bulldozers apparently hired by XANA Capital moved in and began demolishing parts of the land soon after the Patriarchate's statement was released.

Setrag Balian, one of the leaders of the movement opposing the lease, vows rotating groups of Armenians will remain on the disputed site and physically block any further demolition work, until 'the Patriarchate goes to court and takes back this land.'

A priest walks into the Cathedral of St. James in Jerusalem's Armenian Quarter in June.

Details of the proposed development by XANA Capital remain murky but many fear it could be luxury housing priced above what most Jerusalem Armenians could afford, thereby loosening Armenian control of their historical land once the apartments are sold off.

Armenians first established a presence in Jerusalem in the fourth century after the nation became the first to officially adopt Christianity and pilgrimages from Armenia to Jerusalem began. Ethnic Armenians have lived within the walls of the holy city ever since, making the Jerusalemite community the oldest living Armenian diaspora.

A Jewish man walks past a restaurant in the Armenian Quarter.

On November 18, senior church leaders in Jerusalem issued a statement in support of the Armenian community.

'The illegal actions taken by the alleged developer against the Armenian Patriarchate and community are not conducive for the social order that the peaceful and law-abiding Armenian community, which is a member of our Christian family in the Holy Land, longs for,' the church leaders declared.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036

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