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Most Israelis Leave Hospice in Old City : Jerusalem: But 20 stay to care for building. That sets off a shouting match with Greek priests.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As church bells all over the Old City tolled at midday, a Jewish settler group announced Tuesday that it had met a deadline for evacuating a controversial hospice in the heart of the Christian Quarter but was leaving 20 settlers behind to guard and maintain the building.

The announcement immediately set off a shouting match with a crowd of Greek Orthodox priests opposed to the settlement, who unsuccessfully demanded entry to the disputed building to make sure that the settlers had complied with the Israeli high court’s limited eviction order of last week.

“Of course we will fight,” declared Greek Orthodox Bishop Christadoulos of the settlers’ insistence on maintaining 20 of their number in the building, which is owned by the church but leased to the settlers by a Christian Armenian leaseholder. “They are going by force to stay and take our building.”

But settler spokesman Samuel Avyatar said the group has satisfied the terms of the court’s order. He accused the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of seeking to circumvent the court through international pressure.

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“I don’t see a war here, so I don’t see victory or defeat,” he said. “Our goal is to be able to live in every part of Jerusalem freely, like everybody else. . . . We will continue to go in the ways of the court, trusting that justice will be carried out.”

What might have been a routine real estate dispute between religious factions has assumed international dimensions because of its location in Jerusalem’s Old City, a warren of twisting alleys, tiny shops and ancient stone residences that has always been a politically sensitive area because it is home to some of the shrines most sacred to Christianity, Islam and Judaism. By observing carefully drawn boundary lines, the city’s Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian quarters have coexisted in relative harmony, with occasional lapses, over the centuries.

But Israel’s annexation of the Old City and the rest of East Jerusalem after capturing the area from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War led to calls by some right-wing groups for Jews to move in all over Jerusalem--and prompted, on April 11, the most controversial settlement to date in the building known as St. John’s Hospice.

The 72-room building, inhabited for the past three weeks by 150 members of the Jewish nationalist Ateret Cohanim yeshiva, is only steps away from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which many Christians believe is on the site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial.

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The day after the high court’s order last Thursday that allowed 20 people to remain in the building as guards and maintenance workers, Christian and Muslim religious shrines throughout the old walled city and in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Galilee closed for a day of protest.

It was believed to be the first time the Church of the Holy Sepulcher had closed its doors in 800 years, and Pope John Paul II, saying the closure was a cause of “suffering and profound concern for me,” called for the creation of an international statute to regulate the position of all religions in the city of Jerusalem.

The settlement has also strained Israel’s relations with the United States, which has opposed Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and East Jerusalem as an obstacle to permanent peace with the Palestinians. The breach became even more serious when the Israeli government acknowledged late last month that it had provided $1.8 million to help purchase the lease, an admission U.S. State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler called “deeply disturbing.”

The long-term lease was sold by its Armenian Christian holder to a mysterious Panamanian corporation, whose officers have been identified only as “shareholders abroad,” which subsequently invited the settlers to move in.

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The Greek Orthodox Church said it had been trying to evict the Armenian leaseholder for the past eight years, and further court proceedings are pending to determine whether the church will be able to take back the lease from the company that sponsored the settlers. The settlers, for their part, said they will seek to amend the order limiting occupants of the building to 20. A new hearing on the dispute was set for today.

Members of Ateret Cohanim yeshiva, a seminary dedicated to expanding Jewish presence in neighborhoods inhabited mostly by Arabs, have said they are seeking to fulfill the government’s policy of Jewish settlement throughout Jerusalem and, at the hospice, to re-establish Jewish life in an area where Jewish merchants once owned shops before being driven away by Arab riots in the 1920s.

But critics say the move is part of an attempt by caretaker Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s right-wing government to rush settlements into some of the most sensitive areas of the occupied territories and eventually drive Arabs out of the Old City.

On Tuesday, two large Israeli flags, apparent remnants of an Israeli Independence Day celebration the day before, were draped out the front windows of the hospice, while a black protest flag flew above the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

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Spokesman Avyatar said the settlers had been moving out of the hospice throughout the weekend, and by noon Tuesday, only 20 remained, in apparent technical compliance with the court’s order specifying that “the people occupying the building, excluding the (owner) company and its maintenance men and guards, will vacate the building. . . . “

Sixty of the settlers are employees of the Panamanian company that owns the building, a spokesman for the settlers said. When the sight of a woman poking her head out of a window after the deadline set off a shriek of protest by a Greek Orthodox priest, Avyatar responded impatiently: “Maintenance. It’s not allowed to clean the house with women? You want me to clean the house?”

“May I go in please, to see the situation of how many people are inside?” Bishop Christadoulos shouted, surrounded by television and radio microphones.

Avyatar turned to the cameras. “He stands here and he wants an act which has legal aspects. He should apply to his lawyer.”

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At that point, the doors to the hospice clicked shut, and the priests moved back to the patriarchate. A few hours later, a six-member delegation from the church was permitted to inspect the building.

Next door, an Arab cafe owner cheerily dispensed coffee at a reduced price to the hordes of journalists.

“One shekel today,” he said briskly. “One shekel only. Because they . . .,” and he thrust a thumb toward the hospice next door, ". . . are moving out.”


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