For the past two months, 33-year-old Kegham Balian, an Armenian Christian, has spent a significant part of his days and nights in a tent in a parking area known as “Cows’ Garden” in the southeast corner of the Old City of Jerusalem. He expects to spend his Christmas there, which the Armenian Apostolic Church in the Holy Land celebrates on Jan. 19 along with the Epiphany.
The tent is a permanent outpost established by the “Save the Armenian Quarter” (ArQ) association, founded by Hagop Djernazian and Segrat Balian (Kegham’s younger brother). It is a nonviolent movement created to defend properties of the Armenian Patriarchate from being taken over by Xana Gardens Ltd., a real estate company with alleged links to Israeli settler interests.
In the last two months the Armenians have suffered seven or eight attacks by people Balian says were sent by Xana Gardens. The last was on Dec. 28, when 10 Armenians were injured by people throwing stones. Members of the ArQ community have been taking turns to maintain a constant presence on the property.
According to ArQ, the contract between the Armenian Patriarchate and Xana Gardens was illegal and jeopardizes the existence of the Armenian community in the Holy Land.
“In April, we found out there was an illegal leasing of the premises known as the ‘Cows’ Garden’ — an open area which today serves as a parking lot,” Balian explained to CNA. The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem allegedly agreed to give Xana Gardens a 49-year lease of the property — with the option to renew for another 49 — to build a luxury hotel. The deal was signed in 2021 and kept a secret.
CNA reached out to Xana Gardens for comment but received no response.
CNA also contacted Kerkonian Dajani LLP, the law firm representing the Armenian community of the Old City of Jerusalem.
“The community is opposed to any deal that undermines the integrity of the Armenian Quarter and the centuries-old presence of Christian Armenians in Jerusalem,” said Karnig Kerkonian, co-founder of the firm. “Our investigation has revealed that the signing of the purported agreement at issue did not follow the internal procedures of the Holy Synod [the highest authority in the Orthodox and Oriental Churches] and the General Assembly [the general assembly of the monastic order of the Brotherhood of St. James]. This, and a number of other material irregularities including financial ones, fatally handicap the validity of the purported contract.”
When the Armenian community found out about the agreement, protests broke out. They felt threatened not only with regard to their security but also to their identity and cultural heritage. “We started protesting, asking for transparency from the patriarchate,” Balian explained.
The Armenian patriarch has reportedly said he was deceived about the details of the agreement and in October 2023 canceled the deal. The patriarchate is now bringing the case to court.
The positions of ArQ and the patriarchate have gradually come closer together in the past few months, “even if they’re not fully transparent yet,” Balian said. “In any case, the outpost in the parking lot has the full support of the patriarchate.”
The Armenian community has been present in Jerusalem for about 1,700 years. The Old City is today divided into four quarters, a legacy of the British Mandate for Palestine. The Armenian Quarter comprises one-sixth of the old city and occupies the entire southwest corner of the city. Here are not only religious institutions such as the patriarchate, seminary, and churches but also schools, shops, and residences for approximately 2,000 people.
The property involved in the disagreement with Xana Gardens constitutes approximately 25% of the neighborhood’s total area. In addition to the parking lot, it also encompasses a residential area, the private garden of the patriarch, and the Alex and Mary Manougian Hall of the theological seminary of the patriarchate.