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By Emil Danielyan

Catholicos Garegin II has added his voice to mounting Armenian protests against Israel’s seizure of a plot of land in the Israeli-occupied West Bank that has belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church for the past four centuries.

The worldwide church’s central office in the Armenian town of Echmiadzin announced on Wednesday that Garegin has written to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, calling for a withdrawal of Israeli troops from an ancient olive grove located on the northern outskirts of Bethlehem.

The 20-hectare (50 acres) property, known as Baron Der, has served as a summer retreat for the Armenian clergy of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. The Israeli government has reportedly decided to use the land for a planned 350-kilometer security wall between Israel and the West Bank. The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem maintains that the land seizure is illegal.

Garegin was quoted as urging the Sharon cabinet to find an “acceptable solution” to the dispute, pointing to Baron Der’s great “spiritual and cultural value” for the Armenian Church. The Catholicos is “in constant touch” with Patriarch Torgom Manukian of Jerusalem, according to his press office.

The patriarchate, which sued the Israeli army last week, is now awaiting a verdict of the country’s Supreme Court. Its lawyer, Mazen Qopty, told AFP on Tuesday that the army had seized the land on a temporary user basis but the Church is worried that it will stay there permanently. "We are very afraid this wall will become the future border with Israel, and then the land will be gone with the wind," he said.

The Armenian foreign ministry, which has demanded an official explanation from the Jewish state, told RFE/RL last week that the Israeli government promised Yerevan to postpone a final decision on building the security wall through the Armenian church land until August 12. The Israeli court ruling is expected to be handed down by that time.
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