Orthodox Christians mark Christmas amid protests in Bethlehem

|PIC1|Greek Orthodox churches began Christmas celebrations Wednesday as Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem held protests against church leaders for allegedly selling land to Israelis.

On Orthodox Christmas Eve, Palestinians in the town of Jesus’ birth held up placards reading, “The Holy Land is not for sale,” and chanting slogans as a procession led by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III walked through Manger Square toward the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Mary gave birth to Jesus.

According to the BBC, at least 100 protesters turned out on Wednesday to demonstrate against Orthodox church leaders.

Palestinian police had to escort Theophilos as protesters accused the cleric of betraying his Palestinian parishioners.

Protesters claim Theophilos sold church land in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians want to be part of a possible Palestinian state, to Jewish investors. They also believe the top Orthodox cleric in the Holy Land is secretly leasing land in the West Bank to Israeli developers.

The patriarch prior to Theophilos was dismissed by the church due to allegations that he sold millions of dollars worth of church land to Jewish investors.

Israel came to occupy the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and other areas after it won a war in 1967 against neighbouring Muslim countries. Since then, Palestinian and Israeli leaders have constantly been embroiled in conflict over land, with Palestinians calling for the end of Israeli occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The United States is currently involved in mediating between Palestinian and Israeli leaders on a possible two-state solution that would create a Palestinian state.

Following the procession Wednesday, Theophilos began Christmas ceremonies for Greek, Syrian and Coptic churches, leading prayers at the ancient Church of the Nativity.

Some Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas Eve on January 6 and Christmas on January 7, rather than December 25, when most of the world observes the birth of Christ. The Orthodox Church uses the traditional Julian Calendar, under which December 25 falls on January 7 of the standard Gregorian Calendar.