George Jaraisi owns a souvenir shop catering to Orthodox pilgrims just feet away from St. George’s Orthodox Church in Kafr Kanna, Israel. Among his merchandise is local wine—Kanna wine—named in commemoration of the miracle associated with this town, Jesus’ turning of water into wine at the wedding at Cana.
Jaraisi is one of more than 130,000 Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land, by far the largest Christian denomination in the region. While most Orthodox Christians are ethnically Palestinian, the levers of power within the Jerusalem Patriarchate are controlled almost exclusively by Greek priests and bishops. Over 50 percent of Palestinian Christians are Orthodox, and they represent a constituency often misunderstood by the predominantly Greek leadership of the Holy Synod, the governing council of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and the bishops under their auspices.
“They want everything to be Greek,” Jaraisi said. “Instead of bringing people together, they’re splitting them apart.” Despite his proximity to St. George’s Church, Jaraisi said that he never steps foot inside.
The differences between the leadership and the constituency extend beyond the merely cultural. They are also about land, like so much else in Israel and Palestine. The Orthodox Church is the second-largest landholder in all of Israel, behind only the state itself, and revelations about the church’s massive property sales have spurred discontent among Christian Palestinians living in Israel and the West Bank.
“There’s a popular opinion that most of the church’s money comes from local Palestinian laity and the church’s selling of its assets is a betrayal of that trust,” said Hana Bendcowsky, program director at the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.
In 2012, the Orthodox Church sold 240 apartments in the Givat Oranim neighborhood of Jerusalem for $3.3 million to a shell company in the Virgin Islands. In 2015, it sold large sections of the Caesarea National Park for $1 million. According to real-estate appraisers, the amount paid for the transactions was far below market rate. Most of these deals weren’t made public until late 2017 when the Israeli newspaper Haaretz obtained several of the contracts.
This tension has erupted into the public sphere every January for the past three years during the Orthodox celebration of Christmas in Bethlehem. Patriarch Theophilos III, head of the Orthodox Jerusalem Patriarchate, has been routinely heckled by Palestinian protesters angry about the recent sale of church properties to Israeli companies and settler groups in both Israel and East Jerusalem. In 2018, Theophilos’s motorcade was smacked with raw eggs by bystanders waving Palestinian flags, but this year it was the protesters themselves targeted, their cellphones stolen by young men feared to be undercover police officers with the Palestinian Authority.
“Our demands are clear and simple,” said Aglab Khoury of the Orthodox Central Council, an activist group within the church. “We want the patriarch to resign.”
The popular anger with recent land deals indicates a broader discontent among Orthodox Palestinian Christians over identity and the role of the church in securing Palestinian political and human rights over the course of fifty years of Israeli occupation.
“Land is very important for the Palestinian Arab community. Selling land is almost like selling a piece of their body,” said Bendcowsky.
While the Orthodox Church enters into a skirmish with the state of Israel about the status of church properties and revenues, the conflict has brought a deeper problem to the surface, one that has plagued the institution not just for decades, but for centuries: Is the Orthodox Church in Palestine Palestinian?