The Ongoing Plight of Jerusalem’s Christians
Many are laboring to maintain the city's tenuous status quo, but diverse pressures and questionable actors make the task almost impossible.
Fadi Nicodeme was at work on December 4th, and the day started out just like any other. Nicodeme is a security guard in the Church of All Nations, located at the base of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem—a holy site where Christ prayed on the night before His death—and that Friday he was stationed outside, with one eye on the basilica door and the other on the outdoor garden.
Suddenly, Fadi heard his coworker call for help from inside the church. In a single moment, he saw a man take off running from the building and the flash of a fire lit inside. The blaze flared up briefly and intensely, charring some pews and a section of the elaborate tile floor, then auto-extinguished in a matter of seconds—which Nicodeme calls a miracle, and means it.
Nicodeme pursued the attacker, catching him in the street as he ran. A crowd had gathered, and Fadi asked for a cell phone from the bystanders, which he used to call police. The deed done, its perpetrator did not resist as the security guard held him to the ground, waiting, for nearly ten minutes. When the Israeli police arrived they promptly arrested the arsonist, who maintained the same stoic demeanor even as he was placed in the back of their car in handcuffs.
Fr. Ibrahim Faltas, chief advisor for the Custody of the Holy Land, was at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—which stands on the traditional location of Christ’s burial a mile and a half away—when he received the call about the attack at Gethsemane. The Custody is the Roman Catholic body charged with the curation of the city’s sacred places, and the Church of All Nations, though shared in use by many churches and constructed with equally diverse support, is primarily under the care and jurisdiction of the Latin Church. The city’s Catholic holy sites have been cared for by Franciscans like Fr. Ibrahim since the time of St. Francis himself, in the early 13th century.
When he arrived, the scene that met Fr. Ibrahim was something of a relief—it could have been much worse. But there are other dimensions that cannot be understood simply by reference to the magnitude of the flame, which was both contained and brief. The Egyptian-born priest, whose first language is Arabic, struggled to find the words in English to express the severity of the physical damage. The current basilica—built in the early 1920s on the same spot as two earlier churches—is brand-new by the standards of the Holy Land, but despite its relative novelty the Byzantine mosaic floor is a marvel of classical Christian craftsmanship. Even for a small part of it to be destroyed, as was done that day by fire, is an immeasurable loss.
Beyond even this, however, there is a graver element to the attack: the social, religious, and political animus that undoubtedly motivated it. From 2009 to 2017, 53 such attacks on Christian and Muslim holy sites in the region were documented. Investigations into those 53 incidents led to only nine indictments and seven convictions, according to a Haaretz report. Many Christian leaders and activists are eager to express their gratitude to the government for what it has done, but others voice concerns about the dearth of results from police investigations and the low priority it seems to indicate.
Often, for instance, the political motivation is discounted summarily in investigations, with cases classified instead as “motive unknown” and investigations fizzling out. Within days, the Gethsemane attack had likewise been deemed a random criminal act. As early as December 8th, Israel National Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told The American Conservative that the ongoing investigation was being conducted under the assumption that the attack was “not religiously or politically motivated,” though he did not explain why. With the pattern all but neglected by the relevant authorities, it is sometimes difficult even to recognize from a global distance, and virtually impossible to eradicate on the ground.
But it is a pattern nonetheless. Radical settlers—fringe groups that are small in number but well-connected and well-funded—have pursued such symbolic violence against Christians for decades, as has been documented thoroughly by humanitarian groups like Tag Meir and B’Tselem. Many of the perpetrators are explicit in their goal to rid the Holy Land of “idol worshippers.” The frequency of such targeted violence has skyrocketed in recent years. Gethsemane caught the world’s eye, perhaps because of the high profile of the site, but this month’s attack was merely the latest in a long string of crimes that rarely merit so much as a mention in the pages of the international press.
These attacks—on churches, seminaries, mosques, and other locations of substantial value for the Holy Land’s religious minorities—are themselves just one part of a larger, more troubling picture. It is not uncommon for priests to be cursed at and spit on when walking through certain parts of the city. Nor are laypeople immune from the abuse, especially those who wear crosses or other visible signs of their faith. The harassment, of course, does not come from the mainstream of the city’s Jewish inhabitants; but the presence and impact of the radicals, like the damage of the fire, cannot be understood by mere quantitative means.
Many fear that the long-term effect of the low-grade crisis will be death by a thousand cuts. As life becomes, bit by bit, less tolerable for the city’s Christians, many may choose to leave altogether—though oftentimes their families have inhabited the place for centuries or millennia. The pandemic that has ravaged the globe this past year is making a bad situation worse for the Holy Land’s Christian minority, many of whom are dependent on tourism and other service industries that all but vanished during temporary lockdowns and the near-cessation of international travel.
Fr. Faltas was emphatic and sincere about the incident at Gethsemane, but when asked for a final word for American readers, the priest raised another concern altogether: Bethlehem would be empty at Christmas. In an extremely rare occurrence—even over two tempestuous millennia for the beleaguered region—the site of the Nativity, twenty short minutes from Jerusalem, would be unable to welcome the customary wave of faithful Christmas pilgrims. How long the Holy Land’s Christian activity can continue in earnest without a steady stream of international visitors (and the livelihood they provide for the native Christian community) is a difficult question with concerning implications.
Dimitri Diliani is the president and founder of the Palestinian National Christian Coalition. Among numerous other activities in support of the Holy Land’s Christians, Diliani works tirelessly at the simple task of keeping them there. When he hears that members of the community are considering leaving, Diliani and his peers sit down with them to talk and tackle the individual situation. One key recurring issue is jobs; when he can Diliani finds them for his neighbors, hoping to preserve their homes and his community. But with extraordinary pressure on the Christians’ niche economy in the age of coronavirus, an exodus may be in the offing.
This very mundane and yet dramatic struggle—to keep a physical place for oneself in unpropitious circumstances—is at the heart of the dwindling community’s present troubles. On occasion the radicals approach it directly, buying up property in the city’s Arab neighborhoods. The stated goal is the replacement—or “redemption,” in the parlance of these groups—of one ethno-religious group (already a minority in the city at large) with another. One such redemptive undertaking has spawned a bizarre and dramatic saga now in its sixteenth year, whose stakes for the city and the Christian world cannot be understated.
Jaffa Gate is one of the ancient gates to the Old City of Jerusalem, and a key entrance to the city’s Christian quarter. Just inside the gate stand two hotels, the Petra and the Imperial—each of which has a rich and varied history. Like Jerusalem itself, a decisive and exclusive claim to the properties cannot be made on cultural-historical grounds by any one group. The Petra, for instance, offers a case study in the diversity of the area and its heritage. It was built as a home in 1840 by a Jewish immigrant to the Holy Land, Joseph Amzalaq. After Amzalaq’s death, the home was rented out to Samuel Gobat, joint-Protestant bishop of Jerusalem (an unusual see established by agreement between the British and Prussian governments). Then in the 1870s the property was converted to a hotel, operated by a Jewish-born convert to Christianity. In the 1890s its operator was a Muslim—meaning that, in its first 60 years, the property had already been managed by adherents of each of the city’s three major faiths. At the turn of the century, the property once again came under Jewish ownership and management, becoming the first established kosher hotel in the city, which it remained until 1948. The Petra Hotel, like the Imperial, is now owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The property’s century-and-a-half history is a kind of microcosm of the diverse and complicated city—whose composition, in an ironic connection to Gethsemane, many compare to a mosaic.
Though the Imperial’s history may be slightly less colorful, it is this hotel which has caught the attention of the public (to the extent that the issue has received coverage at all, and almost all of it domestic). This modest publicity is thanks almost entirely to the tenant’s willingness to speak. His name is Abu al-Walid Dajani, and he inherited the tenancy of the Imperial Hotel from his father, who signed a contract with the patriarchate in 1948. (Another indicator of the site’s and the city’s diversity: Dajani himself is a member of one of Jerusalem’s oldest and most prominent Muslim families.) Dajani’s contract with the patriarchate extends another 50 years. Now 76 himself, the manager has long planned to pass the hotel on to his children when the time comes.
But in 2006, Dajani received a letter from Ateret Cohanim—a settler organization whose professed interests include “land reclamation” and “national redemption”—informing him that they were his new landlord. Dajani, not one to mince words, wrote back that his real landlord was the patriarchate and he would do business only with them.
The backstory to the disputed change of ownership, still unfolding a decade and a half later, led in its early years to the removal of the sitting patriarch. Patriarch Irineos had granted a general power of attorney to Nicolas Papadimas, an employee in the patriarchate’s finance department. With this power of attorney, Papadimas had secretly signed leasehold agreements transferring rights to the two Jaffa Gate hotels and two other properties to Ateret Cohanim for a renewable period of 99 years, via shell companies registered in the Virgin Islands. The backroom transaction would not just surrender the patriarchate’s four properties, but would do so at a fraction of their appraised market values. When news of the lease contracts was broken by Israeli newspaper Maariv in 2005, the patriarch was removed and replaced with His Beatitude Theophilos III, the current Patriarch of Jerusalem.
The patriarchate’s legal claim is simple: Papadimas had no authority to execute the leasehold contracts, as substantial matters like granting a general power of attorney and transferring rights to major properties cannot be carried out even by the patriarch without consultation and approval by the Holy Synod. Neither the power of attorney itself, nor the contracts established under it, are valid in the eyes of the Church.
But the full picture is far more concerning than a simple oversight of a legal technicality; irregularities abound. For instance, the notary who notarized the power of attorney, Yaakov Miron, happened to share an office with Ethan Geva, the lawyer who counter-signed the leasehold contracts on behalf of Ateret Cohanim—for which organization the two men had previously worked together on property transactions. Why the patriarch would have used an Ateret Cohanim-affiliated notary—with whom the patriarchate had never worked before—for the notarization of a legitimate power of attorney is difficult to reason out.
Beyond that there is the issue of Papadimas himself, a 29-year-old layman who had previously been convicted for fraud in Greece. The appointment of a layman—to say nothing of one of his age, and a convicted criminal to boot—to a position of such power in the patriarchate was immensely unusual. Soon after that appointment, Papadimas bought a car worth nearly $100k—or 83 months of his salary from the patriarchate. Even the money from the disputed leasehold sales was deposited into accounts controlled by Papadimas himself. When his misconduct was revealed in 2005, Papadimas stole what money he could and fled to Greece, where he was briefly detained by police. From Greece he fled to Panama, where he remained for years—and continued to receive money from Ateret Cohanim.
The full story reads like something out of a thriller novel, complete with backroom intrigue and an international chase. But it is far from the first time the group has been accused of such underhanded (and potentially illegal) tactics. In Ateret Cohanim’s decades of operation, it has acquired dozens of Muslim and Christian properties with methods that often blur the line between persuasion and coercion.
Never before, though, have the stakes been so high. Ownership of the two hotels at Jaffa Gate would give Ateret Cohanim control over the entrance to the Old City’s pilgrimage route, including such sacrosanct locations as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Beyond evicting a man from the building his family has held for over 70 years—objectionable in itself—the execution of the contracts might actually imperil the very path of Christian pilgrimage in the faith’s most sacred city.
For more than a decade, Israeli courts have been ruling against the Church despite the ostensible, grave malfeasance surrounding Ateret Cohanim’s claimed acquisition. Now, with new evidence, the patriarchate is pursuing one final appeal. Dajani says he no longer sleeps at night, and does not know what he’ll do if the hotel he intended for his children is handed over instead to a hostile organization.
On Christmas Eve, Diliani’s coalition staged a rally at the Jaffa Gate site with a simple message: this is Christian property, and it will remain Christian property. The forcefulness of the claim may seem uncivil, or even combative, to some. But any conversation with Diliani or his compatriots leaves one with the feeling that it is not a chauvinistic or ill-motivated effort. There is a real fear here that the Christian presence in the city of Christ’s death—already minuscule—will disappear.
In a sense—and it is not an unimportant one—the Christian character of the Holy Land is indelible. It is, and always will be, the site of Christ’s passion and of two thousand years of Christian history. But this substantial permanence does not discount the possibility that the physical, human presence may be whittled into oblivion, and there are forces working toward that end every day with enough money and zeal that the world should be concerned—and, at the very least, aware.
That’s why people on the ground—from activists, to faith leaders, to simple hotel managers—are sounding the alarm about what is happening now in Jerusalem and what may be in store. They do not call it persecution, careful about the gravity of that word. But the threats to the Holy Land’s Christians are undeniable, and another word almost as troubling pops up time and time again: “existential.”