Palestinian Christians attacked on Saturday the car of Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III in protest against the church’s decision to sell land to Jewish groups.
Scuffles with the police erupted as protesters demanded that he resign due to suspicions that the church had struck deals to sell Palestinian land to settlement companies and official institutions in Israel.
The patriarch was on a visit to the West Bank when hundreds of Palestinians blocked his convoy as he drove to a church in Bethlehem to attend an Orthodox Christmas mass.
"Today we stand here to prevent the entry of the traitor Theophilos," Salama Shaheen, an activist of the Arab Orthodox Youth movement, told AFP in Arabic.
"We do not want this man. This man must be brought to trial because he betrayed the homeland, betrayed the church and betrayed every human principle," he added.
Official Palestinian news agency WAFA said Theophilos joined heads of the Syrian and Coptic Orthodox churches in the ancient church, which Christians believe marks the birthplace of Jesus.
Most Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7, while those in the West observe it on December 25 because of differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars.
The Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala municipalities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank had called for the boycott over the Greek Orthodox church allegedly allowing controversial sales of its property in mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem to groups aiding Jewish settlement there.
They had urged the public to stay away, but it was not immediately known if there was a significant drop in attendance compared to previous days or what effect driving rain in Bethlehem may have had.
At least some official invitees were at the church to welcome Theophilos, WAFA said on its English-language website.
"He was received by Palestinian officials, including the governor of Bethlehem Jibrin Bakri and Minister of Tourism Rola Mayaya among others," it wrote.
The mayor of the Christian town of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, earlier said he wanted Theophilos removed from his post over the controversial land sales.
Israeli media have reported that the controversial deals include properties in East and West Jerusalem, as well as in the port cities of Caesarea and Jaffa. They identified some Jewish and Israeli investors as potential buyers, reported Reuters.
Church officials have said they need to sell land in order to pay back debt that has accumulated over the years. Until now the church has been leasing out the land to residents on long-term contracts.
Some Israeli lawmakers are trying to block the deals that they fear could lead to large increases in real estate prices. Palestinians oppose the sale of land to Jewish and Israeli groups and consider it an act of treason.