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Group calls for Orthodox church reform over alleged Israel land sales
by Alex Shams
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Christmas is a time for holiday cheer in Bethlehem, as thousands from across Palestine and around the world converge to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in the hilltop West Bank city.
Onlookers at the Orthodox Christmas parade on Jan. 6 this year, however, were surprised to find protesters awaiting the traditional visit of the Patriarch to Nativity Church, and six youths were even arrested after chanting slogans against him in Manger Square.
For those participating in the rally, it was the visit of Jerusalem Patriarch Theophilos III -- not their protests -- that had ruined Christmas.
"I came here to celebrate the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, in my way as an Arab Orthodox (Christian)," Jalal Barham, a member of the Follow-up Committee of the Arab Orthodox High Council in Beit Sahour told Ma’an at a protest greeting the church leader at Bethlehem's Catholic Action Circle.
"My celebration would not be complete if it did not include expressing my opposition to the illegitimate (Patriarch)."
The protest was part of a growing campaign in Palestine and Jordan loosely organized under the slogan: "Gheyr Mostaheq/Anaksios," meaning "illegitimate" in Arabic and Greek respectively.
Supporters of the campaign accuse the Patriarchate -- reportedly the second-largest landowner in Jerusalem -- of selling off large amounts of land to Israeli authorities through long-term leases.
They have brought forth documents purporting to show that parts of Jewish-only settlements in the Jerusalem area have been built atop these lands, and in the past few years a number of scandals have erupted as details emerged of sales in West Jerusalem neighborhoods as well.
Angered at what they say is the Orthodox Church's increasing collaboration with the Israeli occupation, dozens have joined the grassroots movement aimed at creating change by disrupting the Patriarch's public appearances.
"He is illegitimate in entering the Nativity Church, where Jesus was born and from which the message of Christ emerged," Barham told Ma'an. "We announce in all truthfulness that Theophilos is illegitimate unless he returns to the teachings of Jesus in defending this Holy Land and not selling it off to the Israelis."
The campaign has stirred strong emotions among the 200,000-strong Orthodox faithful in the Holy Land -- including Palestine and Jordan, which are both part of the Patriarch's realm -- raising larger questions of identity and resistance for a community struggling to survive in the face of an occupation stretching back nearly 70 years.
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