Armenian Patriarchate’s View on Baron Der Issue

The property of Baron Der is so named after a renowned and saintly Armenian Patriarch–Grigor Baron Der (1560–1645)–who used it as a retreat for devotion and hermitage. According to historical documen’s–the said Patriarch lived there–and since then the place was used by Armenian clergy for worship–reclusion–and meditation.

Located north of Aida camp – Bethlehem and south of Tantour–Baron Der consists of approximately 143 dunums of archaeological land with ancient caves and tombs–as well as hundreds-of-years-old olive trees (1600 trees) in the vicinity. Within the property–in the south–stands a monastic building–which serves as residence for Armenian monks who officiate in the Nativity Church of Bethlehem. Armenian monks from Jerusalem also go there for their annual retreat and spiritual training.

The Baron Der matter began long before the issuing of a military order by the State of Israel through its Chief Commander for the West Bank–General Itshaq Eitan–and the Head of the Israeli Ministry of Defense–General Amos Yaron–to construct a fence separating Palestinian areas from Jerusalem.

The incursion of the IDF into the said property during mid-2001 can be considered a preliminary step toward the construction of the security fence–which the ministry of defense is aiming to execute.

The Issue

During the first week of May 2001 the IDF–without notifying the Armenian Patriarchate–broke into the convent of Baron Der with the excuse of security reasons. Upon the Patriarchate’s complaint–the defense ministry issued a 6-month seizure order of the property on May 16–2001. The IDF not only took possession of the said property–but also did not show respect towards the monastic building–thereby destroying and causing enormous interior and exterior damages to the convent and to the property as well. Because of the siege imposed on the Bethlehem area–the Patriarchate had to suffer in silence–hoping the encirclement would end–and then deal with the issue. The Patriarchate enumerated the IDF-caused damages and sent to them to the defense ministry together with a letter of complaint on September 14–2001.

On August 27–2001–during the incursion into the region of Beith Jala–the IDF destroyed the wall enclosing the Baron Der convent and trampled down the ancient olive trees under its tanks. In preliminary preparation–the tanks opened the security road–which today the defense ministry aims to convert into a separation wall and a security road between the West Bank and Israel. Armenian monks from Bethlehem went there immediately to request that the IDF leave the property and deal with the compensation of the extensive damages they had caused thereto. This request was left without a response. The Patriarchate’s architect visited the property and enumerated the damages–estimated at approximately $77,000. Through its attorney–the Patriarchate issued a letter of complaint–together with the request for compensation on September 14–2001.

Receiving no reply from the defense ministry with regard to the damages caused by the IDF during their incursion into the Beith Jala and Bethlehem areas–on November 27–2001–the Armenian Patriarchate appealed in writing to the Italian Consul General–to the Special Representative of the United Nations Development Program–and to the Minister of Public Works of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah–for the restorative renovations of the said damages.

On December 20–2001–the IDF responded to the Patriarchate’s letter of complaint–denying the intrusion of the IDF into the property–and asserting that–in their view–the IDF had never entered the said property and had not caused any of the damages stated in the Patriarchate’s letter of complaint. The IDF further added that if the Patriarchate had any kind of dissatisfaction–it could write to the committee of insurance and lawsuits of the defense ministry.

On January 14–2002–the Armenian Patriarchate received a letter from the defense ministry–stating that they were considering the issue based on the Patriarchate’s letter of complaint–dated September 14–2001.

On March 25–2002–the Armenian Patriarchate sent a letter requesting an appropriate response by the defense ministry. This was never answered.

On April 21–2002–the IDF paved a military road–starting from main road of Gilo and passing through the Baron Der property–thereby dividing said property into two useless plots and reaching the main road to Bethlehem. When paving the road–the IDF destroyed the tombs and the antiquities and uprooted many of the hundreds-of-years-old olive trees. The representative from the Armenian Patriarchate–Fr. Pakrad–went to Baron Der and met with the defense ministry advisor and IDF representative–Commander Amitai Levi–who stated that the road is only for temporary use–and as soon as the situation in the region calms down–they would restore the area as it had been before. They also requested that the Patriarchate allow them to lease the Baron Der convent as their headquarters–which the Patriarchate refused. They further promised to put this request in writing–which they never did. The Patriarchate convened an immediate Synod meeting regarding this matter.

Until May 23–2002–the Armenian Patriarchate persistently contacted Commander Amitai Levi–asking for the terms of their request in writing–but to no avail. The Patriarchate issued a new letter of complaint to the defense ministry May 23–2002–stating the following: "Recently the IDF opened a road of 1000 meters in length within the Armenian Patriarchate’s property called Baron Der–and this without the consent and the knowledge of the Patriarchate. The IDF is aiming to construct a separation wall–which can cause enormous damages to the sacred property."

During the meetings of the Armenian Patriarchate’s representatives with the defense ministry–it was suggested and agreed that the wall to be constructed shall be the existing wall–separating the Baron Der property from Aida refugee camp.

The Armenian Patriarchate requested the defense ministry give the necessary orders to the IDF to act accordingly so as not to cause any further damages to the Patriarchate and to its property.

On June 19–2002–the defense ministry and the IDF invited the representatives of the Greek and Armenian Patriarchates to meet at the site of the conflict and discuss the issue. During that meeting–Fr. Pakrad objected to the plan and repeatedly demanded that the road be moved to the existing wall separating the Baron Der property from Aida refugee camp.

As a result to the requests–the representative of the IDF and defense ministry–Shmuel Hamburger–on June 23–2002–delivered to the Armenian Patriarchate a military order of laying hand on the Baron Der property. This order was issued a long time after the opening of the military road within said property–thereby dividing it into two useless plots–contrary to the Patriarchate’s consistent objections. The order was issued by the State of Israel through its Chief Commander for the West Bank–General Itshaq Eitan–and the Head of the Israeli Ministry of Defense–General Amos Yaron–in order to construct a security fence separating the Palestinian areas from Jerusalem. The area is located north of Aida refugee camp – Bethlehem–and south of Tantour.

On June 25–2002–for the second time–the Armenian Patriarchate ordered its architect to prepare a project for the reconstruction of the wall demolished by the IDF. The Bill of Quantities for this project was estimated at $311,757.

On June 26–2002–upon the invitation of the defense ministry–the Armenian Patriarchate’s attorney–Advocate Mazen Qupty–and representatives from the Patriarchate went to Tel Aviv to meet with the representatives of the ministry and the IDF. During the meeting–the defense ministry representative–Shlomo Alon–stated that they are ready to reduce the width of the road from 50 meters to 27 meters–but they are not willing to move the road to the existing wall separating Baron Der property from Aida refugee camp for security reasons. He stated that the road that the ministry is planning to construct should become like the frontier between Jordan and Israel. He also added that the ministry is interested in leasing the existing convent as their headquarters. The Patriarchate representatives rejected such a proposal and requested a reconsideration of this plan–for which purpose a Synod meeting was convened.

On July 10–2002–a meeting was convened at the Armenian Patriarchate’s Real Estate Office between the Patriarchate’s representatives–Advocate Mazen Qupty–and the representatives of the defense ministry and IDF–headed by Shlomo Alon. The Patriarchate’s request to move the security fence and the road to the existing wall separating the Baron Der property from Aida refugee camp was not granted.

Having reached an impasse–on July 14–2002–the Armenian Patriarchate–through Advocate Mazen Qupty–issued a file of appeal regarding its objections to the Ministry of Defense’s plan to build a security fence running through the Baron Der property and delivered said file of appeal to the Appeal Court in Tel Aviv.

The issue was taken up by the worldwide media. Articles were published concerning the said issue–sometimes misrepresenting the geographical location of the said property. Local newspapers discussed the fact that the holy site of Rachel’s Tomb–which is not far from the Baron Der property–was not taken within the security fence.

The Baron Der property is a sacred and archaeological site within the region. Ever since 2001–Armenian monks have been unable to go on their annual retreats there because of the current situation within the region.

The letter of clarification from the Embassy of Israel in Tbilisi to the Foreign Ministry of Armenia–stating that the IDF temporarily seized 27 meters wide and 300-400 meters long agricultural land is not correct. The defense ministry has stated that the security fence is intended to be a separation wall between the West Bank and Israel. Thus–the security fence will divide the sacred property into two useless plots.

Despite all the efforts of the Armenian Patriarchate to avoid any such conflicts–and despite all the correspondence of the Patriarchate to reach a better understanding for a fair agreement on the issue–the Patriarchate’s requests were not granted and its letters were not answered.

The Armenian Patriarchate has no other alternative than–on the one hand–to turn to the local and international media–and on the other hand–to appeal to the High Court of Justice against such a plan.

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