BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
As if Armenians did not have enough problems these days with the disastrous developments in Artsakh, we are now faced with a new controversy in the Diaspora. I have received dozens of phone calls and emails from Armenians in various countries, informing me about a new issue brewing at the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem. The details are sketchy and Armenians I contacted in Jerusalem asked that I do not disclose their names fearing either expulsion from the housing provided to them by the Patriarchate or some other retribution.
The issue is about a plot of land that was recently leased by the Patriarchate to a Jewish businessman from Australia. I contacted all three clergymen who were mentioned as approving this deal on behalf of the Patriarchate.
I first sent an email to Patriarch Nourhan Manougian, asking for a copy of the contract. Regrettably, he did not respond. I then called Archbishop Sevan Gharibian, the Grand Sacristan of the Patriarchate. He was reluctant to discuss the issue. I was told by an anonymous source that Arch. Gharibian was pressured into approving the contract. I then called Father Baret Yeretzian, Director of the Real Estate Department of the Patriarchate, who confirmed the deal and provided some of the details. These three clergymen, a minority of the eight-member Holy Synod of the Patriarchate (Dnoren Joghov), were the ones who had approved the lease. An anonymous source suggested that the entire St. James Brotherhood of the Patriarchate should have met to review the contract.
Fr. Yeretzian stated that there have been several offers from citizens of various Arab countries to lease that particular property owned by the Patriarchate. However, he stated that the most advantageous offer was made by Danny Rubenstein, a Jewish businessman from Australia.
Without disclosing the amount, Fr. Yeretzian confirmed that the Patriarchate received an advance payment from the businessman. An anonymous source informed me that the down payment was one million dollars. Fr. Yeretzian also told me that the Australian businessman plans to build a seven-star luxurious hotel on the property and a percentage of the annual revenue of the hotel will be transferred to the Patriarchate. Even though the anonymously circulated information fixed the length of the lease at 99-years, Fr Yeretzian told me that the lease was in fact for 98 years. Such a lengthy lease leads many to believe that the Patriarchate will never recover that property. When asked, Fr. Yeretzian disagreed, asserting that the Australian businessman will have to return the property to the Patriarchate at the end of the lease, along with the pricey hotel built on it. This is an issue that remains to be seen a century later. Similar lengthy leases for other properties have been signed by the Patriarchate in the past resulting in the same arguments.
The property in question is called “Goveroun Bardez” (Cows’ Garden), located on the historic Mt. Zion, at the southwest corner of the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem. Several months ago, the Patriarchate had signed an agreement with the Municipality of Jerusalem to use the same property as a parking lot to be renovated at the expense of the Municipality and part of it used to park the cars of Jewish residents of the area. At the time, the Patriarchate issued a statement declaring that the value of this land is over $2 million. Fr. Yeretzian told me that the new lease with the Australian businessman will supersede the earlier agreement with the Municipality. Other sources told me that the new agreement was also signed without the approval of the Armenian Patriarchate’s full Holy Synod or the Brotherhood of St. James.
There have been past controversies when members of the Patriarchate leased other properties or attempted to sell precious manuscripts stolen from the archives at Sotheby’s auction in London. To make matters worse, the sale or lease of any Armenian property to Israeli individuals, companies or the government is frowned upon by Palestinians who view such transactions as expanding Israel’s presence in the occupied territories. I was told that the Palestinian Authority had sent a formal letter of complaint to the Armenian Patriarchate regarding the lease of this property. However, Fr. Yeretzian denied receiving any such communication.
In the absence of concrete facts and copies of actual documents it is hard to reach any firm conclusions. In the name of transparency, the Patriarchate should make public a copy of the contract for the lease of the “Goveroun Bardez” property disclosing its terms. Without such disclosure, it is hard to judge the advantages or disadvantages of this contract.
If the Patriarchate is engaging in such transactions in order to cover the administrative expenses of its operations, it may be useful to release a report of the Patriarchate’s annual revenues and expenses so everyone can see if the Patriarchate is in a dire need of income. If the Patriarchate is indeed in a desperate financial situation, such a report may encourage benefactors from around the world to make contributions to the Patriarchate and eliminate the need for the sale or lease of additional valuable plots of land.
Finally, in the past, an independent temporary committee was formed to oversee the administrative affairs of the Patriarchate. This may be the right time to reestablish such a committee on a permanent basis. The reports of a credible oversight committee would put an end to divisive and persistent rumors in the Armenian communities about the affairs of the Patriarchate.