By Emil Danielyan
Pope John Paul II has joined Christian leaders from around the world in expressing concern at Israel’s controversial seizure of West Bank land belonging to Jerusalem’s Armenian Patriarchate, the Echmiadzin Catholicosate reported on Wednesday.
The headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church said the Pope has written to Catholicos Garegin II informing that he instructed the Vatican foreign office to raise the issue with the Israeli government.
“I hope that…it will be possible to find a solution to this unfortunate situation that would protect Jerusalem’s ancient Armenian Patriarchate and thus prevent yet another blow to Christian presence in the Holy City,” the Roman Catholic pontiff was quoted as saying.
Garegin’s office said the letter came in response to the Catholicos’s recent plea for “sister churches” around the world to intervene in the dispute over the 20-hectare plot of land near Bethlehem, known as Baron Der. The property has been owned by the Armenian church for nearly 400 years. It was seized by the Israeli army last spring for the construction of a long security fence designed to protect Israel against attacks by Palestinian militants.
The de facto confiscation order has provoked an uproar in Armenia and Diaspora communities, with the Jerusalem patriarchate appealing to Israel’s Supreme Court in late July. The court has not yet handed down a ruling.
The patriarchate and the Israeli military are, in the meantime, holding negotiations to try to find out a mutually acceptable solution to the land dispute. Patriarch Torgom Manukian of Jerusalem told the Armenian Assembly of America last week that the army has agreed to relocate the fence along the south side of Baron Der, rather than build it down the center. But he said the two sides have still to agree on some other issues, including compensation for the damage inflicted on the property.
The “Boston Globe” newspaper reported on Tuesday that the Israeli Defense Forces have already dug a deep trench across the property and built a patrol road for military jeeps on one side. About 300 of the land’s 1,900 olive trees were bulldozed in the process.
The paper quoted a spokeswoman for the Israeli defense ministry, Rachel Ashkenazi, as acknowledging that “the army went along much too fast.” She assured that “everything will be returned to its former place” in the central sections of the property.