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World Middle East

Closing the church in protest has caused much frustration

  • paula_slier
It was a strange sight. For a few days this week, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City – built on the spot where Christians believe Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected – was closed.
by PAULA SLIER | Mar 01, 2018

Disappointed pilgrims mingled in the square in front of its ironclad doors, while a group of Russian worshippers knelt in prayer off to the right. The last time the church was closed for political reasons was three decades ago.

Behind its doors lies a chequered history. Managed by six competing – and often warring – Christian factions, the church’s leaders decided 800 years ago to entrust two Muslim families with the church’s keys and the task of opening and closing its doors each day.

This, they felt confident, was the only way they could ensure that no Christian denomination would be granted favour over another. And it has worked.

Each morning – at 04:00, to be precise – Adeeb Jawad Joudeh treads the familiar cobblestones from his home in the Muslim quarter to open this sacred Christian site.

I accompanied him on one of these walks. He told me that since 1187, when his family received the church’s keys from Salah al-Din (the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, credited with capturing Jerusalem from the Crusaders), the keys have been passed from generation to generation.

On a wall in his home hangs a collection of the various keys used over the years. At night he shuts the doors, locking in the monks who sleep there.

When I visited the church this week, disheartened worshippers bemoaned the fact they’d come from all over the world – especially now in the weeks before Easter – but were unable to enter. Joudeh sat off to one side.

“I’m from Gaza,” one pilgrim told me. It was the first time ever that this elderly man had been granted permission by the Israeli authorities to visit Jerusalem, and now he could only pray in front of a closed door. That sentiment was echoed by worshippers from as far afield as Asia, America, Europe and even South Africa.

The decision to shut the church’s doors was made by leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic communities. They made this decision after the Jerusalem municipality announced its intention to start collecting taxes for church-owned properties that did not house places of worship.

This meant that church-run halls, restaurants, hostels and the like that, until now, have been exempt from taxes thanks to a decades-old agreement, would have to start coughing up.

The decision also applied retroactively. But following the outcry – also from the international community – three days after making its announcement, the Jerusalem municipality said it was postponing such collections. 

Jerusalem is one of Israel’s poorest cities and the tax revenue from such properties would have run into millions of dollars.

It’s a fair argument that such places should be taxed in the same way that other similar establishments in the city are. However, the churches insist that they return the money into their community and use it to feed and house poor Christians.

They felt that they were being used as pawns in a bigger fight between the Jerusalem municipality and the finance ministry in lieu of budget shortfalls and mounting debts the city is facing.

Church leaders were also worried about proposed legislation which, they suspected, would allow the state to confiscate church-owned land.

Here too, in light of the outcry, the government has since frozen a controversial bill that its sponsors insist was not meant to affect what the churches could do with their property. It was meant – they believe – to deal with what happens when the land rights are sold to a third party.

The legislation is designed to protect hundreds of Jerusalem landowners whose property was built on land owned primarily by churches, and subsequently sold to other investors.

The timing of the decision to close the church could not have been worse for Israel. That is because it comes on the heels of US President Donald Trump’s game-changing public recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

That announcement has instilled fear among the country’s minorities (only 2% of Jerusalem’s citizens are Christian). It has also fuelled anti-Israel critics with charges that the authorities are tightening control over the city.

Hamas was quick to call for an escalation of the “al-Quds [Jerusalem] Intifada” against Israel’s “religious war on the Palestinians and their Islamic and Christian holy sites”.

The Palestinian Authority also linked the church’s closure to the US’s plan to move its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May.

Church leaders accused the Jerusalem municipality of attempting to “weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem”. They issued a joint statement in which they accused authorities of a “systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land”. They compared it to anti-Jewish laws issued in Nazi Germany.

None of this is actually true. In fact, on numerous occasions Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken about the hospitable climate for Christians in Israel, especially when compared with their persecution in other parts of the Middle East.

But the most worrying aspect of the whole debacle – which has since returned to the status quo of a week ago – is what it says about how Israel communicates with the Christian world.

There were other ways to solve the standoff. However, Netanyahu is busy with more urgent matters and the decision by the church’s leaders to close the doors took everyone by surprise.

Jerusalem no doubt underestimated the anger – and the power – the churches hold. Israel needs to be careful not to feed into pre-existing anger and misconceptions.

At the time of writing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre remains closed, but it is expected to reopen in the coming days.

Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.

 

 

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