Hundreds of Palestinians rallied on Saturday in occupied East Jerusalem against the selling of church property to Jewish settlers.

Protesters demanded the removal of Patriarch Theophilos III over his involvement in selling church land and called for an end to Greek dominance over their church.

They held up signs reading: "We demand the freedom of the Orthodox Church from Theophilos and from corruption" and "Church land belongs to the church and its congregants - not to Theophilos and his gang."

Demonstrators also chanted: "Theophilos, you collaborator. Our land is not for sale" and "We want national unity, to free the Patriarchate."

Signs read: 'The Orthodox endowments are for the sect and not for Theophilos' and 'Our endowments are our past, future and present' [Al Jazeera]

"The people are demanding unity, transparency, and not to Arabise the church, because the church is already Arab Palestinian," Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List in Israel's parliament, said in a statement at the protest.

"In the 21st century, we are here are to ensure that this a national cause. We are here to say there are those who aim to transform the conflict from a national one to a religious one. This is a conflict between illegal occupation and between the people of Jerusalem - Christians and Muslims," Odeh added. 

"There is no excuse for the selling [of] any piece of land. This land is for our people. They succeed by dividing us, or bribing us. I ask you all to sit together to form unity and to pinpoint our demands and to foster unity to succeed in this just cause."

The rally comes amid fears in the Palestinian Christian community that Israel is attempting to "weaken the Christian presence" in the country.


READ MORE: How Israel is targeting Palestinian institutions


In a joint statement released this month, patriarchs and church leaders in Jerusalem expressed their concern over what they termed "breaches of the status quo that governs holy sites and ensures the rights and privileges of churches".

The statement condemned a recent Israeli court ruling over the selling of two strategically located hotels near Jaffa Gate in the Old City and a large building in the Muslim Quarter to the Israeli Jewish settler group, Ateret Cohanim, which aims to expand the Jewish presence in the occupied city. The court approved the sale in early August, giving Ateret Cohanim rights over the property for a period of 99 years.

"The judgement in the 'Jaffa Gate' case … which we regard as unjust, as well as [a] proposed bill in the Knesset which is politically motivated that would restrict the rights of the Churches over our own property, are further assaults on the rights that the status quo has always guaranteed," the statement noted.

The patriarchs and church leaders also vowed to support a high court appeal against the judgement and called on fellow church leaders around the world to stop further attempts to change the status quo.

The church has vowed to appeal the Israeli court's decision [Al Jazeera]

The Greek Orthodox Church is the second-largest owner of land in the country. The controversial deal between the church and Ateret Cohanim was made in 2004 and came to light a year later.

Although the deal was initiated by Theophilos III's predecessor, Irenaios, who was deposed from his position for his actions, activists and residents believe Theophilos III was responsible for concluding the deal with the settler organisation.

"The Patriarch will continue to use bribes. We will not allow these bribes to continue. This church is an Arab church and its administration should be Arab. The Patriarch must be an Arab - whether Palestinian or Jordanian. We will not accept anything else," Alif al-Sabbagh, a member of the Arab Central Orthodox Council in Palestine and Jordan, told Al Jazeera at the protest.

Source: Al Jazeera