Next month, June, there will be a court hearing in Jerusalem to decide an issue of great importance to Jerusalem’s Christians, who now number perhaps just 9,000 in total. Formerly they constituted nearly a third of the population; now they represent just one per cent. Yet that one per cent represents a disproportionately large share of the social capital of the city: maybe 30 per cent of the schools, hospitals, care for the elderly, centres for the young. It is also a community that represents a living strand of the Church community associated with the apostle James, 2,000 years ago. The Christians are a force for good in Jerusalem. They are a living expression of its triune character, its religious diversity.
The court proceeding in June is an attempt by the Greek Orthodox Church to persuade the Israeli justice system to reopen a case concerning the sale of five properties in the historic Christian quarter, mostly relating to transactions that took place in 2004. On the face of it these seem unimportant, being the sites of hotels and a pilgrim hostel. Yet they are part of an apparent bid by a radical Jewish settler group, Ateret Cohanim, to make Jerusalem, the City of David, into a city predominantly for Jews, and to marginalise the Christian – and Muslim – presence. The deals were transacted by a rogue official of the Greek Orthodox Church, who had been given power of attorney by the former Patriarch of Jerusalem, Irenaeus. When the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Church, discovered the sales, it promptly deposed the patriarch and replaced him with the present incumbent, Theophilos, who is doing his best to undo the damage wrought by his predecessor.
Why do these properties matter? For one thing, their physical location is critical; three of them are positioned strategically close to the Jaffa Gate where Christians enter the city; if the properties are in the possession of a group hostile to the Christian presence, those processions will take on a different character. Another is a pilgrim hostel right next to the Holy Sepulchre. In Jerusalem, physicality matters; the Christian quarter is small and the presence of a group hostile to Christians alters the character of the quarter. There is no question, of course, that Jews have the right to own properties anywhere in the Old City but this is something different from purchases by individuals; it is property acquisition as a means of aggrandising the Jewish presence at the expense of others. As Daniel Seidemann, a distinguished Israeli attorney specialising in Jerusalem, puts it: “Israel is engaged in policies which allow exclusionary, Biblically motivated settlers to shape the character of the area around the Old City, thereby marginalising and diluting the Christian presence and properties in Jerusalem.”
This case, therefore, is loaded. It is not merely to do with a routine real estate dispute; it is about the continuing Christian presence in Jerusalem. In a recent ruling on another disputed area, Sheikh Jarrah, the Supreme Court acknowledged that wider issues could be taken into account in such cases; what is needed now from the Israeli legal authorities is similar moral breadth.
This is not the only problem for the Christian community. As observed in our article on Jerusalem, Jewish radicals engage in continuing low-level harassment of clerics and attacks on church properties. Radical settler groups – by no means representative of all Orthodox Jews, let alone the Israeli majority – routinely spit on clergy and at church buildings; they have also physically attacked clerics. The Benedictine monastery of the Dormition in the liminal Zion Gate area is routinely targeted by one small but militant group, sometimes endangering the monks. When clerics who are attacked complain to the police they find that security cameras mysteriously failed to operate at the time.
More troubling still is the running proposal – often shelved, only to be revived at an opportune moment – to turn the Mount of Olives into a national park, an apparently innocuous plan. Yet the guardianship of the area by religious houses is exemplary; this is a politically motivated move that is malign to the churches.
And in the public spaces in and around the Old City, organisations representing radical groups increasingly often organise festivals that are inimical to the character of the area; for instance, the food festival timed for the culmination of both Lent and Eid.
It is for the wider Christian community outside the Holy Land to make clear to their governments that this harassment of Christians in Jerusalem is intolerable and must stop. And they in turn must say as much to the government of Israel. Jerusalem, spiritually if not politically, belongs to us all.
This harassment of Christians in Jersualem is intolerable and must stop
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