PA Intensifying Bid To Control Churches

By STEVE RODAN The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 4, 1998

JERUSALEM (October 4) - The Palestinian Authority has intensified its effort to control Christian churches in Israel as part of its campaign to acquire their extensive landholdings in the country and gain influence in the West, a government report says.

The report, drafted by security officials for cabinet review, says the PA effort began with its takeover of churches in Bethlehem, including the Church of Nativity, and has now extended to churches and Christian sites in Jerusalem. These include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of Mary Magdalene.

The PA effort is focused on gaining control over the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem and the Greek Catholic Bishopric in the Galilee.

The drive to dominate the Greek Patriarchate is regarded as most alarming because of the church's vast holdings in the western part of Jerusalem, including land on which the Knesset and many government buildings are located. The Greek Catholics control considerable property in the north of Israel.

"The PA's efforts to take control over the patriarchate consist of a three-pronged approach encompassing the public, legal and political spheres," the report said.

The PA campaign is being waged by the newly-formed Orthodox Congress, composed of associations that administer the community's churches, cemeteries, cultural and educational institutions. It is headed by Kamal Ferah of Nazareth.

The report says the Congress is working to create a union of Orthodox Palestinian Christians with two leading PA figures, Marwan Barghouti, West Bank Fatah leader, and Ramzi Khouri, personal secretary to PA chairman Yasser Arafat.

Over the past four months, the report says, the Congress has demonstrated against the Patriarchate in Ramallah and Amman, with its leaders accusing church leaders of selling property to Israelis. The Congress is also demanding the establishment of a public council to oversee Patriarchate properties and assets. "The Greek priests who run the Patriarchate have been subjected to threats," the report says. "There are reports of plans by the Congress to break in and seize documents and deeds of ownerships."

The PA attempts to wrest control of the Greek Orthodox Church from the patriarchate come as leading PA officials, particularly Faisal Husseini, the minister responsible for Jerusalem, have warned that the Palestinians are preparing to lay claim to large portions of western Jerusalem.

The report says the PA is also trying to gain control over the Armenian Patriarchate and the Franciscan Order, which controls Catholic sites on behalf of the Vatican.

"The PA has used its indirect control over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as a means of influencing the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Patriarchs, through which it impacts [on] the political positions of the Greek government and the European Union," the report says.

Ibrahim Kandelaft, head of the PA's Christian affairs department, could not be reached for comment.

Several Jerusalem churches and patriarchates have already turned what the report terms Palestinian. These include the Latin Patriarchate, headed by Michel Sabah and his deputy, Bishop Kamal Batisch; the Anglican Bishopric, headed by Bishop Riah Abu Assal; the Lutheran Bishopric, headed by Bishop Munir Yunan and the Greek Catholic Bishopirc of Jerusalem, headed by Archbishop Lutfi Laham.