Page last updated at 16:58 GMT, Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Land sales row mars Orthodox Christmas in Bethlehem

Orthodox priests attend festivities in Bethlehem in front of protest banners (06.01.10)
Banners reading "the Holy Land is not for sale" were displayed during the celebrations

Palestinian Christian groups are boycotting celebrations of Orthodox Christmas in Bethlehem, accusing their Church of selling land to Israelis.

At least 100 protesters gathered with banners saying: "The Holy Land is not for sale," ahead of festivities to mark Christmas Eve for the Orthodox Church.

They accuse the Greek Orthodox Church of selling and leasing land in the West Bank to Israeli organisations.

The Church said it would not comment, on such a festive occasion.

The Council of Arab Orthodox Institutions and Organisations in Palestine said the current patriarch, Theophilos III, had continued to allow Israeli investors to lease Church land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The area was occupied by Israel during the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, and is where the Palestinians want their future state.

Riot gear

The Christian groups mentioned one specific strategic piece of land, in the Bethlehem area, near the Israeli settlement of Har Homa, but said it was part of a wider pattern of deals set up under the previous patriarch.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem, Theophilos III, visits Bethlehem ahead of Orthodox Christian celebrations
Patriarch Theophilos III is accused of leasing land to Israelis

Patriarch Irineos was ousted in 2005 over his alleged involvement in the leasing of Church land in Jerusalem's heavily contested Old City to Jewish investors.

There were remarkable scenes as the current patriarch arrived escorted by Palestinian security guards clad in riot gear, reports the BBC's Jon Donnison in Bethlehem.

The Scout groups' marching bands who would usually welcome the patriarch with bagpipes were silent as the church leader arrived.

Reprisal attacks

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who would also usually be present, is travelling overseas and it is unclear whether he is officially boycotting the event.

Palestinian owners of land in the West Bank, particularly in East Jerusalem where the Palestinians want their future capital, are often offered large sums of money to sell to organisations seeking to expand the Jewish presence in the area.

Palestinians who sell are at risk of reprisal attacks.

About 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in settlements illegal under international law.

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