A contentious agreement … An “enigmatic lease contract” imperils the Armenian community in Jerusalem


The leasing of a parcel of land and property situated in the heart of Jerusalem has instilled fear within the city’s Armenian community, leaving them bewildered as to how their real estate could be transferred to an unidentified investor.

The contentious 99-year lease encompassing approximately 25 percent of the real estate within Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter has struck a nerve, igniting a controversy that has compelled the head of the Armenian Orthodox Church to seclude himself within a monastery. Additionally, a priest, who claims responsibility for the lease, has fled to the suburbs of Los Angeles.

“By selling this locale, they are selling the essence of my being,” expressed Garo Nalbandian, an octogenarian photojournalist who resided in the Ottoman-era buildings among the dwindling Armenian community for five decades.

The Armenian presence in Jerusalem dates back over 1,500 years, and their return occurred after the Armenian Genocide of 1915, when the Ottoman Empire massacred an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in what is widely recognized as the first genocide of the 20th century.

Concern over the lease intensified in late April following an unexpected visit by Israeli land surveyors.

Rumors have circulated that an “Australian-Israeli” investor, whose enigmatic company sign now graces the site, intends to transform the parking garage and limestone castle into a luxurious hotel.

As anger, confusion, and apprehension of potential evictions intensified, the Armenian Patriarchate, responsible for the community’s civil and religious affairs, acknowledged that the church had indeed “signed a lease for the plot of land.”

The Armenian patriarch, Nourhan Manukian, held a paralyzed priest, who had been “dismissed from service,” fully accountable for the “fraudulent and deceptive” deal, claiming that it had transpired without his knowledge.

The acknowledgment further ignited passions within the Armenian Quarter, with activists denouncing the agreement as an existential threat to the ancient community of Jerusalem. Jordan, which maintains historical ties to Christian sites within the city, expressed concerns for “the future of the holy city.”

Palestinian officials accused the Armenian patriarch of “assisting Israel in its decades-long struggle against them” over a city both sides claim as their capital. For Palestinians, these real estate disputes epitomize the longstanding conflict and symbolize what they perceive as a broader Israeli endeavor to dispossess strategic areas of East Jerusalem.

“From a Palestinian standpoint, this constitutes a betrayal,” remarked Dimitri Diliani, the head of the Christian National Coalition in Jerusalem. “And from the perspective of peace advocates, it undermines any potential resolution to the conflict.”

Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah II commented on the recognition of Patriarch Manukian, who held the position for the past decade, a position typically held for life. This action rendered him incapable of signing contracts, executing transactions, or making any decisions concerning Palestinian territories and Jordan.

The priest Baret Yeretsian, who orchestrated the deal, was ousted, assaulted by an enraged mob of young Armenians, and detained by Israeli authorities before seeking asylum in Southern California. Meanwhile, Manukian retired to an Armenian monastery, unwilling or unable to appear in public, as reported by residents.

“This neighborhood means everything to us,” asserted the community’s leader, Hagop Dzhirnazian, 22. “It is the sole gathering place for Armenians in the Holy Land. We must fight for its preservation.”

The neighborhood is home to around 2,000 Armenians who possess the same status as Palestinians in the Israeli-annexed city, being residents but not citizens.

Over the past month, demonstrators have congregated outside Manukian’s residence, vociferating “traitor” and demanding transparency regarding the identity of the lessee and the details of the lease agreement.

While the Armenian Church declined to disclose the specifics of the deal, Yeretsian revealed that the investor in question is Australian-Israeli businessman Danny Rothman. Serving as the church’s estate manager, Yeretsian stated that he had acted at the patriarch’s request and with his knowledge.

Very limited information is available about Rothman, who also utilizes the surname Rubinstein, aside from a 2016 incident where he was fined by Cypriot regulators for forging an academic certificate.

On his LinkedIn profile, Rothman claims to be the Chairman of the Board of Directors for Zana Capital Hotels Company, and company records indicate its incorporation in the UAE and registration in Israel in July 2021.

Subsequently, numerous Armenian priests raised concerns publicly for the first time regarding the undisclosed real estate deal, and a recent sign appeared within the Armenian parking garage, indicating its ownership by Zana Capital.

Upon contacting Rothman, who is based in London, for comment, he declined, stating, “I have never given an interview.”

Meanwhile, the exiled priest, Yeretsian, asserted that Rothman intends to establish a lavish “seven-star” resort in the Armenian Quarter, with management entrusted to the luxury Dubai-based company “One & Only” hotels.

The agreement appears to be one of the most prominent and controversial business partnerships facilitated under the Abraham Accords.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry refrained from commenting, citing “political sensitivities.”

Kerzner International, the proprietor of One&Only resorts, also declined to comment, mentioning their ongoing pursuit of opportunities to expand their array of luxury resorts.

Renowned Israeli architect Moshe Safdie confirmed that Rothman would be financing the project. Safdie stated that he would be “designing the project” and noted that construction would commence with the parking garage.

It remains unclear whether the neighborhood’s residents will be forced to vacate, but the Patriarchate affirmed its commitment to assist those affected by potential evictions.

Jewish investors, both within Israel and abroad, have frequently sought real estate in East Jerusalem, with the Armenian Quarter being particularly appealing due to its proximity to the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, the holiest site for Jewish worship.

The objective is to expand the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem and solidify Israeli control over this portion of the city, which Palestinians assert as their capital.

Previously, scandals involving land sales to Jewish settlers have marred the Greek Orthodox Church, the custodian of numerous Christian sites in the region. Two decades ago, the Greek Church sold two hotels under Palestinian management within the Old City to foreign companies acting as fronts for a Jewish settler group. The covert deal led to the ousting of the Greek patriarch and triggered international outrage.

Yeretsian, now in California, dismissed concerns of an Israeli settler takeover of the Armenian Quarter as “propaganda” solely based on Rothman’s Jewish identity.

“The intention was never to Judaize the locale,” he asserted, asserting that Rothman harbors no political agenda.

Yeretsian maintained that the Armenian patriarch was actively involved in the negotiations, personally affixing his signature to the contracts.

“I fulfilled my duty diligently in the best interests of the patriarchate,” he concluded, declining to provide further details regarding the leases, which he stated expire after a century.

The Patriarchate declined to disclose its intentions concerning the rent money.

Meanwhile, the Armenians of Jerusalem perceive themselves as “living in terror,” having endured prolonged foreign domination, and displacement due to wars, and currently finding themselves caught between Israelis and Palestinians.

“We acquired our land, Shubra Shubra, through blood and sweat, and with a single stroke of a pen, it was relinquished,” lamented Satrij Balian, 26.

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