Christian churches in Jerusalem resist Israeli settlers

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III (C) arrives for a meeting with other religious leaders at the Petra Hotel in the Jaffa Gate area of ​​Jerusalem’s Old City – Copyright AFP/File HAZEM BADER

Claire Gounon

The churches of Jerusalem rise up against the Jewish “radicals” who settle in the Christian quarter and threaten a fragile religious balance in the ancient holy city.

“We have a major problem here,” Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus III said in Jerusalem’s Old City, which is divided into historic Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian neighborhoods.

“Jerusalem also has its Christian character, and that is what is under threat,” he told AFP, as Christian worshipers prepared for Easter celebrations.

The patriarch accused the extremist Jewish settlers, known for their desire to seize the properties of Palestinian families, of also waging a campaign for the control of land belonging to Christians.

“These radicals are driven by their ideology,” Theophilus III said. “Their ideology is the syndrome of messianism, when they claim ‘we want to redeem the Holy Land from the profane’.”

The nationalist settler group Ateret Cohanim has worked to “Judaize” East Jerusalem – a Palestinian area illegally annexed by Israel according to the UN – by buying real estate through front companies and then moving Jewish settlers there.

Since 2005, the group and the Orthodox Church have been embroiled in a complex legal dispute over ownership of an inn in the Old City at the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Christian Quarter.

The dispute took a new turn on March 27, when settlers seized part of the Petra hotel by “breaking and entering”, according to the Greek Orthodox Church.

Theophilus III said that the Israeli government “promised us that they would do their best to fix this problem and that they would put pressure on these radical groups to come out”.

But, after more than two weeks, the settlers are still there, he said.

“It seems that the state has neither the power nor the will to (put pressure) on these people,” he added.

– “Big, big drama” –

Hagit Ofran, of the Israeli anti-settler group Peace Now, said the dispute is “a big, big drama, because it’s such a strategic place at the entrance to the Christian quarter, a huge complex where they can bring hundreds settlers”.

Ofran warned that “if they succeed, it changes the whole character of the old town – and of course the Christian quarter”.

Around 300 Jewish settlers already live in the Christian quarter.

Churches have expressed concern over the trend, as well as acts of vandalism and anti-Christian aggression, arguing that the problem extends beyond the ancient heart of Jerusalem.

On the outskirts of the Old City, on the Mount of Olives where several important churches stand, Israel plans to expand a park that will encroach on land owned by Christian institutions.

The three communities concerned – Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Franciscan – sent a letter to the authorities in February.

“In recent years, we cannot help but feel that various entities seek to downplay, if not eliminate, any non-Jewish characteristics of the Holy City by attempting to alter the status quo on the holy mountain,” they said. they wrote.

The letter charged “after their attempts failed, they resorted to statutory powers, proposing a plan to declare large parts of the mountain a national park”.

The government temporarily removed the project from its agenda.

In December, Israel was angered by comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Anglican Church leader Justin Welby, who accused an increase in attacks and vandalism of holy sites as a “concerted attempt” to drive out the Christians.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said the accusations were “baseless and distorted the reality of the Christian community in Israel”.

– ‘Anti-Christian hate crime’ –

Ofran, the Peace Now campaigner, said the government was only doing the bare minimum – and even “protecting the settlers” with its police force, which failed to dislodge them.

She said Israel – which sees all of Jerusalem as its indivisible capital – “is not going to evict the churches themselves, but they want…it to be a Jewish environment with Christian enclaves,” a challenge similar to that faced by Muslims.

Father Nikodemus Schnabel, of the Benedictine community of Mount Zion, adjacent to the Old City, said “it’s really a concern, that Israel has turned a blind eye.”

Its Dormition Abbey has been the target of acts of vandalism attributed to settlers, which have multiplied in recent months.

He says he sees “a lack of will” from the authorities to tackle the phenomenon of “anti-Christian hate crimes”.

Schnabel argued that Jerusalem is unique because of its religious diversity, highlighted this year as the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, Passover and Easter overlap.

“How boring would Jerusalem be if it was only Jewish, Christian or Muslim? he said.

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