The Israeli army has seized lands in Bethlehem belonging to the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate. The land under dispute consists of 35 acres in an area called by Armenians Baron Der. It lies north of the Aida Palestinian refugee camp, and south of the Tantur Ecumenical Centre. To the east of this grove is the fortified Israeli shrine of Rachel's Tomb, the biblical matriarch, which is considered one of the holiest sites in Judaism. Baron Der, with its 165 agricultural acres and many olive trees that date back hundreds of years, was purchased legally in 1641 as the site of a summer residence for the Armenian Patriarch and as a rural retreat for the Armenian monks in the Holy Land. The olive trees supply the traditional oil that lights the lamps over the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as well as over the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Resurrection (Holy Sepulchre) in Jerusalem. The land is also honeycombed with caves and Byzantine tombs that constitute part of much larger archaeological troves in the Holy Land. The Israeli plan proposes a 40-metre barrier that would splinter this Armenian property and also result in the occupation of land on both the Jerusalem and West Bank sides of the dividing line. The barrier is meant to be part of a 350-km security wall being currently built by Israel around the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem in order to separate the Palestinian territories from Israeli-held areas. However, this plot being confiscated by Israel also straddles one of the most unstable political fault lines separating Israel from the Palestinian territories. Many community leaders and observers in Jerusalem fear this land seizure is part of an attempt to expand the Israeli borderline into the Palestinian-controlled West Bank so that Jewish worshippers can have much easier access to Rachel's Tomb. The emergency seizure orders were issued late last month. Israeli officials have advised the Armenian officials that they are irreversible. The Armenian Patriarchate has petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court. To date, the case is still pending, and no judgment has been forthcoming. The Patriarchate is also appealing for churches around the world to write to the Israeli embassies calling for an end to the occupation.
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