Scores flocked on Wednesday to the Manger Square in the southern West Bank city of Bethlehem celebrating Christmas according to the Gregorian calender.

As the Greek Orthodox Church leader, Patriarch Theophilos III, made his way to the nativity church local Palestinian orthodox Christians protested his visit. The gathered crowed holding Palestinian flags and banners chanted “we do not welcome those who sell our land to Israel.”

Reasons given for the protest include the accusations made in April of
last year, that approximately 18 acres, of land around Mar Elias Monastery, situated between Jerusalem and Bethlehem have been leased to an Israeli construction company for development, and the failure of his promise to reverse similar actions of his predecessor, Irenaios I. Said actions led to Irenaios I being voted out of his position as head of the church.

Today’s actions kicked off with a press conference held by the council of Arab orthodox organization in Palestine announcing the start of the protest moves. Marwan Toubasi, Presidents of the council of Arab orthodox organization in Palestine told reporters:

“We will not accept a compromise over the Patriarch’s selling of land. He has taken the land that belonged to our forefathers and our ancestors. We, the Greek Orthodox Association and Organizations condemn the Patriarch’s actions. We demand that the sale and leasing of land must stop and that the Palestinians are represented as part of the church.”

Tubasi continued to say ” We have three conditions. 1- That the land is returned to its rightful owners. 2 – That no more land is sold. 3 – That the church recognizes and involves the Palestinian Christian community in church affairs. If these conditions are not met then we will split from the Greek Orthodox Church and form our own Arab Orthodox Church, separate from the Greek Church.”

“When the last land that was leased to an Israeli development company, a Palestinian company offered a better deal to the church but they decided to work with the Israeli’s and the settler community. Abu Gneim is an example of sneaking land away from the Palestinians. The land was leased to the Jerusalem Municipality, and then used as the site of the Har Homa settlement.” Tubasi Concluded

Dr. Elias Ise’ed, a member of the council of Arab orthodox organization in Palestine, told IMEMC that Palestinian orthodox Christians demand their rights for the church.

“We wanted Patriarch, Theophilos III to implement his promises that he made to us when he was elected as the leader of the church. We are part of the Orthodox Church as any other in the world and we should be treated as such.” Told IMEMC

Unanimously voted to the position in 2005, Theophilos III had promised to undo much of the harm caused by Irenaios I, who in 1999 signed a deal with a British development company that lead to construction linking the illegal settlements of Har Homa and Gilo, outside of Jerusalem, in the occupied West Bank. It is estimated that the total volume of land leased by Irenaios I was approximately 700 dunums.

Leading members of the church in Palestine have also decided to boycott the reception of the Patriarch, Theophilos III. They did not receive him at the Mar Elias Monastery, nor at Checkpoint 300, the entrance to occupied Bethlehem.

Even though heavy geared Palestinian riot police escorted Theophilos III to the church of Nativity, the Palestinian government has lowered the representation in the celebrations. Only three Palestinian government officials greeted the Patriarch, Tourism Minister Dr. Kholud Dibes, Bethlehem Governor, and the Mayer of the city Dr. Victor Patarssa .

Fu’ad Kokaly, a Christian MP from Bethlehem, said that the government decided to lower the profile of officials because of the Patriarch’s actions.
The Palestinian Authority is supporting the protests moves, the government have asked the church to stop the deal, and I think the government’s law profile representations is a clear message.” Kokaly told IMEMC.

For the first time in 15 years the Palestinian President will not attend the midnight Mass at the church of the Nativity.