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Edgar Petitions Ariel Sharon to Return Armenian Church Property
Israel Plans to Erect a Barrier on Property Sacred to Armenians Worldwide, Held Since 1641

July 31, 2002, NEW YORK CITY - A sacred Armenian Church property near Bethlehem, seized by the Israeli government and facing demolition, must be protected and returned to its rightful owners, National Council of Churches (U.S.A.) General Secretary Bob Edgar says in an urgent appeal to Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Baron Der, in the northern outskirts of Bethlehem, has belonged to the Armenian Church since 1641. Of great historical and spiritual significance to Armenians worldwide, it includes an Armenian Church administrative and training center, religious retreat and archaeological site.

The site’s olive trees, some of them 500 years old, by custom have supplied the oil used in lamps at the traditional tomb of Christ at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and also at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, revered as the traditional birthplace of Christ.

Dr. Edgar, in his July 31 letter to Prime Minister Sharon, writes, "As a national U.S. ecumenical body, comprised of 36 Orthodox and Protestant communions, including our brothers and sisters in the Armenian Church of America, we feel compelled to speak out regarding reports of the seizure of this holy place and of plans to destroy it by erecting a barrier that would run through the property.

"As a result, the Patriarchate may lose this sacred and historically important property, and also the income derived from it-another blow to a minority Christian community there that already is tremendously stressed. We fear that this violation does not bode well for other religious minorities residing in Israel.

"We further understand that the seizure of Baron Der is taking place despite repeated efforts on the part of the Patriarchate to prevent the division of the property and to resolve the matter in a mutually satisfactory manner," Dr. Edgar wrote. "We respectfully ask you to do everything in your power to assist in resolving this matter in a way that ensures the return of this holy site to its rightful owners, and that guarantees the protection of the Armenian and other religious minorities living in Israel."

The full text of Dr. Edgar’s letter to Prime Minister Sharon follows.

July 31, 2002

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

Dear Mr. Prime Minister:

On behalf of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, to which 50 million Americans relate through their denominations, I greet you and also present you with an urgent request.

It is with a sense of alarm that I write to ask your assistance in resolving a situation in which recent actions of the Israeli government have infringed on the rights of the Armenian Orthodox Church. I refer to the seizure of sacred Armenian Church property in the northern outskirts of Bethlehem, which property the Armenian Church has held since the year 1641.

We understand that the property, known as Baron Der, includes an Armenian Apostolic Church administrative and training center, religious retreat, income-producing olive grove, and archaeological site-and is of great historical and spiritual significance to Armenians throughout the world. Among the treasures of Baron Der that are being threatened are the olive trees (some of them 500 years old) that by custom have supplied the oil used in lamps at the traditional tomb of Christ at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and also at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, revered as the traditional birthplace of Christ.

As a national U.S. ecumenical body, comprised of 36 Orthodox and Protestant communions, including our brothers and sisters in the Armenian Church of America, we feel compelled to speak out regarding reports of the seizure of this holy place and of plans to destroy it by erecting a barrier that would run through the property. As a result, the Patriarchate may lose this sacred and historically important property, and also the income derived from it-another blow to a minority Christian community there that already is tremendously stressed. We fear that this violation does not bode well for other religious minorities residing in Israel.

We further understand that the seizure of Baron Der is taking place despite repeated efforts on the part of the Patriarchate to prevent the division of the property and to resolve the matter in a mutually satisfactory manner. We respectfully ask you to do everything in your power to assist in resolving this matter in a way that ensures the return of this holy site to its rightful owners, and that guarantees the protection of the Armenian and other religious minorities living in Israel.

Along with this request comes the assurance that prayers for you and other world leaders and for peace in the Middle East are regularly being said among the 140,000 congregations of our member communions. May God guide and bless you in these difficult days.

Sincerely,

Robert W. Edgar, General Secretary

cc: President George W. Bush; Secretary Colin Powell; His Beatitude Archbishop Torkom Manoogian, Patriarch; His Eminence Archbishop Barsamian; Mr. Jim Towey

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