Jerusalem row rekindles tensions over Christian holy sites

The Israeli moves were viewed by Christians in Jerusalem, who are overwhelmingly Palestinian, as politically motivated.
Sunday 04/03/2018
A man carries wooden crosses near the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, on February 28.  (Reuters)
Cross to bear. A man carries wooden crosses near the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City, on February 28. (Reuters)

LONDON - The dispute between Palestinian and Israeli officials over the future status of Jerusalem rekindled tensions between the Jewish state and the city’s Christian community.

Officials of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a site that many consider among the holiest in Christianity, made the rare decision to shut the church’s door to tourists and pilgrims for three days to protest an Israeli effort to tax church properties. The church was reopened after Israel suspended the decision.

The church is in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians see as the capital of their future state. Israelis view the entire city as their undivided capital. The church is built where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. Custody of it is shared by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations.

An Israeli committee led by cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi is expected to negotiate with church representatives to resolve the tax dispute.

“After the constructive intervention of the prime minister, the churches look forward to engage with Minister Hanegbi and with all those who love Jerusalem to ensure that our holy city, where our Christian presence continues to face challenges, remains a place where the three monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) may live and thrive together,” church leaders said in a statement.

Israel suspended legislation in parliament that would allow authorities to expropriate land in Jerusalem that churches sold to private real estate firms. Churches are major landowners in Jerusalem and church officials say such a law would make it harder for them to find buyers for their land, sales that help to cover operating costs.

The Israeli moves were viewed by Christians in Jerusalem, who are overwhelmingly Palestinian, as politically motivated.

In a speech to foreign ambassadors in Ramallah, Palestine Liberation Organisation Secretary-General Saeb Erekat accused the United States of ignoring Israel’s actions against Christian institutions.

Referring to US Vice-President Mike Pence’s January visit to the region, Erekat said it was “ironic” that “he said he was here to consolidate and strengthen Christian presence in the Middle East.”

In September, the leading churches in Jerusalem issued a rare joint statement condemning what they called “systematic” Israeli attempts to “weaken the Christian presence” in the city.

The churches condemned an Israeli court decision allowing a pro-settlement group to take control of church land in a mainly Palestinian area in Jerusalem, as well as a bill in the Israeli parliament relating to church land.

“We see in these actions a systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and to weaken the Christian presence,” the statement said.

The Greek Orthodox church called the Israeli ruling “politically motivated.”

The September statement said the two measures — the court ruling and the bill — threatened a decades-old agreement between religions about the governing of sites in Jerusalem.

“We cannot stress strongly enough the very serious situation that this recent systematic assault on the status quo has had on the integrity of Jerusalem and on the well-being of the Christian communities of the Holy Land,” it said.

Separately, Israel barred Palestinian Education Minister Sabri Saidam from visiting a school in the Old City of Jerusalem.

“The minister entered Jerusalem but was prevented from entering the school. Israeli security banned him at the door of the school,” ministry spokesman Sadiq al-Khadour told Agence France-Presse, saying it was the third such incident.

“This ban comes in the context of escalation against Palestinian education in Jerusalem.”

Palestinian official media said Tourism Minister Rula Maaya had been scheduled to visit the private school with Saidam.

Israeli Interior Minister Gilad Erdan confirmed the ban, saying it was his right “to prohibit any official political activity of the Palestinian Authority in the territories under the sovereignty of the state of Israel.”

“The struggle for our sovereignty in Jerusalem is not over. The Palestinian Authority and other elements are trying to weaken it,” he added.

Israel seized control of predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war, in a move never recognised by the international community.

Many schools in East Jerusalem refuse to adopt the Israeli curriculum and consider themselves Palestinian.

Israel controls access to and from Jerusalem and can prevent Palestinian ministers from entering the city.

Tensions escalated between Palestinians and Israelis following an announcement by the Trump administration in December to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

In a move that is likely to further sour Palestinian-American relations, the United States recently said it would open its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem in May to coincide with Israel’s 70th anniversary.