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An Anti-Christian Disgrace In Jerusalem

On holiest time of Orthodox Christian year, police limit access to holy sites -- part of wider campaign against Christians in Old City
Screen Shot 2022-04-23 at 9.48.55 AM

Today is the holiest day in the year for Christians — or, I should say, Orthodox Christians. It’s Pascha (Easter), for us; Western Christians celebrated Easter last week. The first service of Pascha begins at midnight tonight, which is why I say that today is the holiest day; to be honest, Pascha stretches from that service tonight, and lasts all day tomorrow.

Here in Jerusalem, though, Holy Saturday has particular meaning to local Christians because of the miracle (it is believed by most) of the Holy Fire. This is the first sign of the Resurrection. At 11 am, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher fills with believers. After noon, the Greek Patriarch goes into the edicule, the “little house” built over the tomb of Christ, prays, then, according to belief, a divine energy descends, lighting the Patriarch’s candles. He then emerges and passes the flame to everyone there. It is an ecstatic moment, as you can see here. I have a ticket to get into the Church this morning for the event. Me, I’m skeptical about whether or not it’s truly a miracle — I am certainly willing to believe — but no Orthodox believers from this region doubts at all. Whether the Holy Fire is a true miracle of mere symbolism, it is a central annual event in the lives of Christians in the city and region where Jesus lived, ministered, suffered, died, and rose again.

I’m staying at a hotel inside the Old City, where I was advised to book a room out of fear that the Jerusalem police would not let Christians into the Old City on Holy Saturday. This turns out to have been very good advice.

After an early breakfast in our hotel, a Christian friend and I decided to go over to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to pray. We got to the end of our street, which opens onto the plaza at the Jaffa Gate, and two Jerusalem police officers told us we couldn’t pass. Then she said we could leave, but there was no guarantee that we could get back in. We walked past the barrier, over to the Jaffa Gate, where I saw this big crowd of Christians behind the barrier, denied entrance into the Old City:

The police officer at the gate said we could leave the Old City, but when we returned, to tell the guards at the bottom to phone her, and she would tell them to let us in. She was polite, and tried to be accommodating, but I told my friend that I didn’t want to risk not being able to get back in. My friend, who lived in Israel for years, told me that he doesn’t blame these cops. “They’re all Israeli millennials,” he said. “Many of them don’t like this any more than we do. These are their orders.”

Meanwhile, Orthodox Jews like this man, wearing a white prayer shawl, passed easily into the Old City, going to the Western Wall on the Jewish Sabbath to pray:

My friend said, “In all my years living in Israel, I’ve never seen that. Wow.”

A few minutes later, an Arab Christian shop owner said to us, “You see what we have to live with? Every year it’s like this.”

Before we returned to the hotel, I saw a small group of Christians passing by, headed into the Old City. They must have been allowed to pass by the police at the Jaffa Gate. But this was only a small number; by far the greater part of the crowd remained outside.

Later this morning, my friend and I will be allowed to pass into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, because we managed to get tickets to the service. Normally, though, you don’t need a ticket. The Patriarch has protested the Jerusalem police decision to limit the number of Christian worshippers allowed into the Old City for the Holy Fire ceremony. In a press statement about the letter the Patriarch sent to the head of Jerusalem police, the Patriarchate said:

 

The controversy has ended up in Israeli court. The Israelis say this is a matter of safety, but no Christian here believes that. There have been violent clashes this weekend between Israeli soldiers and Islamic worshipers outside the Christian Quarter of the Old City, but Christians do not cause problems. We are peaceful. Yet the Israelis won’t let our people come freely to worship. Why not?

There is a broader controversy here that the worldwide Christian community should know about. It involves the activities of a radical Israeli settler group that aims to “redeem” Jerusalem by cleansing it of non-Jews. The controversy for now centers around the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City. This 2019 story from The Guardian gives a good overview. Since that report, the radicals of Ateret Cohanim have taken possession of the Imperial Hotel. Here is a more recent report from The Telegraph:

Atop the roof of the Petra Hotel, almost every major Christian site and denomination in Old Jerusalem is visible, from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection and the centre of world Christianity, through to the lowly Swedish Christian Study Centre.

Located by the ancient city’s Jaffa Gate, where the Christian Quarter meets the Armenian Quarter, the strategically located hotel and its neighbours, Little Petra and the Imperial Hotel, are at the heart of an epic legal battle that local Christians said epitomises their struggle to cling on in this holiest of cities.

“The problem of Jaffa Gate is the problem of the coming generations for hundreds of years,” claimed Abu Walid Dajani, the proprietor of the Imperial Hotel. “Fifty years from now, there will be no Christians in Jerusalem. I can see Jerusalem, unfortunately… it’s a cemetery.”

The fight over the hotels came as Christians in Jerusalem face a demographic crisis and alleged increasing harassment from radical Jewish groups in the city.

Members of the clergy and local Christians that The Telegraph spoke to described regular incidents of verbal abuse, vandalism and spitting, as well as rare occasions of violent assault.

The property dispute dates back nearly two decades. At its heart are a series of deals done under the previous head of the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem in 2004 and 2005, in which key properties across the city were sold to Ateret Cohanim, a Jewish settler group which seeks to “reclaim” land in Jerusalem for Jews.

The Patriarchate, backed by the 12 other major Christian denominations in the Holy Land, insisted that the deals were the result of corruption and blackmail.

Irenaios I, the Patriarch at the time, signed over power of attorney to Nikolas Papadimos, an official in the finance department who made the deals with Ateret Cohanim.

When the sales came to light, Irenaios I became the first Patriarch in two centuries to be removed from office, while Mr Papadimos fled to South America.

More:

Two factors have created renewed urgency. Ten days before The Telegraph visited the Petra Hotel, members of Ateret Cohanim forced their way into Little Petra in the middle of the night and occupied it.

On the day that The Telegraph visited, scorch marks were still visible on the door into Little Petra, whilst from inside the Petra Hotel, a single Jewish man was visible next door, through a broken window, dressed in a kippah, prayer shawl and tefillin and praying.

When The Telegraph spoke to one of the settlers, he had limited English and was unwilling to talk to journalists. Whilst he provided a phone number to call, no one picked up.

The second factor is a looming Supreme Court case in which the Greek Patriarchate will attempt to have the case reopened. Since the court last considered the case, a whistleblower has come forward, allegedly disgruntled at Ateret Cohanim’s failure to pay him, detailing supposed corruption by the group in the mid-Nineties.

Lawyers for the Patriarchate admitted that it does not prove that the 2004 and 2005 deals were corrupt, but they hope to demonstrate a pattern of behaviour and, crucially, to get Mr Dan in the witness box.

And:

If the case is lost, the Christian community faces the prospect of losing control of a key area of the Christian Quarter where pilgrims enter on their route to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Christian churches start their processions.

The Patriarchate insisted that the row is not about preventing Jews from living where they want to, but stopping a co-ordinated attempt to change the character of the old city.

They point, as an example, to the former St John’s Hospice. Just 250yds east of the Jaffa Gate, it is the prime example of what the Christian church fears could happen across the quarter.

On the lintel above the entrance is the tau-phi monogram of the Greek Patriarchate, yet the vast building is bedecked with multiple Israeli flags, the windows barred and the stonework crumbling.

In 1990, this hostel for pilgrims was taken over by Ateret Cohanim, causing uproar among Christians and Muslims, and led to the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in protest.

That hostel normally would have housed hundreds of Christian pilgrims. Now it is full of hostile Israeli settlers. The local Christians I’ve talked to this week believe that this is part of a settler plot to choke off access to Christian holy sites within the city, and force Christians out. One more clip:

At the far end of the Armenian Quarter, on Mount Zion, Father Nikodemus Schnabel works as a monk in the Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition. He told The Telegraph how more settlers had moved into derelict buildings around the order’s properties, bringing with them vandalism, littering, abuse and the throwing of projectiles.

“They destroy the tyres of our cars, graffiti ‘death to Christians’, break windows, they desecrate our cemetery, you know… ugly things, and it’s really invasive,” he said.

Both Father Baghdasaryan and Father Nikodemus were clear that this is not about Jews or Israelis in general, but a radical minority, with many Israelis unaware that there is even a problem.

Father Baghdasaryan described how when he was abused by extremists in front of an Israeli crowd in the new city, the crowd turned against the abusers.

“We have so much solidarity because there are many, many wonderful Jews who are ashamed of that behaviour,” said Father Schnabel. “But I see a lack of will among the authorities to really go after [the perpetrators].”

Read the whole thing. 

I want to emphasize that as far as I can tell, what the monk says is true: most Israeli Jews wouldn’t support these hate-filled radical settlers. But do they even know what is going on?

Here is a link to the Ateret Cohanim website.They sound innocent. Believe me, they are not. Guess who spoke at their 2010 dinner? John Bolton. 

What is happening here in this holy city is a disgrace. I say that as an American Christian who cares for Israel, and who wants the Israelis and the Arabs to live in peace. But we American Christians, especially those who support Israel, cannot stand by and allow these radical Jews to stomp all over our people in the city where Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead. I believe in Israel’s right to exist, especially as a safe haven for the Jewish people. But I do not believe in the Jewish right to abuse non-Jews, especially in the holy city. I also do not believe that my Israeli Jewish friends support this. I hope that Christians and Jews of good will will rise up, repudiate these radical settlers, and defend the status quo that makes the holy city a place of worship for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

And to be clear, I condemn all violence in the Holy City; the Muslims this week who have caused such an uproar are wrong. Nevertheless, what is happening this morning here in Jerusalem, as I write this, with Christians — who have always been peaceful — being denied access to their holy sites for prayer on this most sacred of days, is another form of violence. It is intolerable.

The United States provides billions in aid annually to the State of Israel. Why do we put up with this from the Israelis? Washington should pressure the Israeli government to take a firm stand against these radical settlers in the Old City. I understand that a Congressional delegation may soon be coming here to take a look at the Jaffa Gate controversy. Good. I urge both Republicans and Democrats to come to Jerusalem, meet with Christians living in the Old City, and learn first hand about this intolerance and abuse.

And to my Evangelical Christian brothers and sisters in America, those who are so devoted to the State of Israel: I get it, but if you love Israel, please speak to the Israelis on behalf of your Christian brothers and sisters who live here, and who are mocked, harassed, and abused by radical Jews. These radicals are not representative of all Israeli society — but they are tolerated. They should not be. You American Christians, you have a lot of influence. Please use it to defend your fellow Christians in the city of Christ’s death and resurrection. If you don’t, very soon you yourselves may not be able to gain access to the Christian holy places, to pray at the site of Golgotha, and at the Tomb where Jesus rose from the dead. These radical Jews of Ateret Cohanim do not love or respect you; they despise you as much as they despise the Catholics, Orthodox, Armenians, and Protestants who live here.

This is not theoretical; this is actually happening. These Orthodox Jews are walking right this very morning, freely, to pray at their holiest site. Thanks be to God that they can do that! But what about us Christians? We never threw stones at Israeli police in the Old City. Why are we treated like potential criminals? Who benefits from this? Besides Ateret Cohanim, I mean.

(Note well: anti-Semitic comments will not be published. I condemn anti-Semitism unreservedly. But criticizing the Jewish settlers and official Israeli policy does not constitute anti-Semitism.)

UPDATE: Yesterday at the Holy Fire ceremony, I met the Rev. Canon Don Binder, a Virginia priest who is now an official of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, which cares for the Anglicans here.

 

Self with Rev. Canon Don Binder

Father Binder posted this to his Facebook feed after yesterday’s events:

Imagine you are driving across town to attend Easter Day services in your church. Only when you arrive, you find that the surrounding area has been cordoned off by barricades manned by hundreds of armed police.
No crime has been committed, you’re told. But the authorities have decided that they are only allowing a few people inside to attend Easter services that day–and you’re not one of those included.

Now imagine in that same cordoned-off section of town, there is also a synagogue and mosque. Unlike their treatment of Christians, the police are freely admitting those who wish to attend their Passover or Ramadan services–many hundreds, in fact.

Sound like some Orwellian alternative reality? Or perhaps some distant third-world country? No. That was yesterday here in Jerusalem during Eastern Orthodox Easter.

Less than two weeks ago, police summarily announced to the church leaders in Jerusalem that they were reducing by 90% those allowed to attend Easter eve services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre–limiting attendance to 1,000 worshipers for a church that can hold more than 10,000 people. What’s more, they were only going to permit 500 people from outside the Old City inside to join in the Easter festivities.

Meanwhile, throughout the festivals of Passover and Ramadan, police have facilitated the admission of tens of thousands of daily worshipers to the Western Wall and the Haram esh-Sherif (though the latter not without incident, as you may have heard).

As I’ve commented in my videos, because of my position as Undersecretary of the Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem, I was invited to help escort foreign diplomats from western countries to the service of Holy Fire yesterday. Yet even for those VIPs, it was like running a gauntlet.

Police checkpoints were at every corner. Even when we reached the private property of the Greek Patriarchate, police had taken over there as well. They actually turned back nearly a dozen Consuls General and other diplomatic representatives, including ones from the United States. We had to take an alternative route to get inside.

If that was the way it worked for VIPs, imagine you’re a local Palestinian Christian simply trying to worship on the holiest of Christian holidays inside the church built over the very Tomb of Christ.

In the pictures I took below, you can see the grieving faces of a tiny fraction of the thousands who were not permitted even near their church yesterday, breaking with a precedent that has continued for nearly seventeen centuries, across half-a-dozen ruling empires. But apparently not now by the current right-wing Israeli government.

Authorities will tell you this was all out of safety and security concerns, citing the Haredi disaster last year at Mt. Meron, where 45 died because of collapsing risers. But there is no comparison. Mt. Meron had been a free-for-all for decades, with no coordinated safety plans.

In contrast, Church leaders have cooperated with Israeli authorities since they began occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. There have been firemen inside with extinguishers on their backs, and crowd-control measures implemented. Moreover, there are no such risers inside Holy Sepulchre to collapse, just a massively solid stone church.

What’s more, if these were such grave concerns, why have police not limited the numbers of Jewish or Muslim worshipers in a similar manner?

I think we all know the answers to that.

Clearly, the “safety and security” rationale is merely a pretext for keeping Palestinian Christians from worshiping inside the Holy City. As such, Church leaders of Holy Sepulchre were right to issue bold statements against this draconian action, correctly identifying this as a religious freedom violation.

In the end, the Israeli courts, with little deliberation, decided that 1,800 would be allowed inside Holy Sepulcher. So instead of a 90% reduction from the past Status Quo, there was only an 82% one.

That’s cold comfort for the thousands of Palestinian Christians barred from worship yesterday. Beyond that, it should be a matter of grave concern for those around the world of any faith: to see the religious freedom of the Christian minority so violated yesterday is a severe erosion of human rights in the Holy City that is sacred to all three Abrahamic faiths.

I invite the international community to intervene in this matter, and I challenge the Israeli government to do more than pay lip-service to their pledge to the world that they would protect both the religious Status Quo and freedom of worship inside the Holy City of Jerusalem.

If you have Facebook, read the post in the original, and look at his photos.

UPDATE.2: A statement from Jerusalem Police:

Since early morning hours and throughout the day, The Israeli Police took actions in order to  enable  a proper and safe Holy fire ceremony , in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The police deployment was completed after comprehensive assessments , extensive staff work, a field tour, coordination meetings with church leaders and approval of plans headed by the Jerusalem District Commander.
Hundreds of policemen, border guards and volunteers were deployed since this morning in the Old City area in order to secure the public, accompany the processions and visitors, regulate capacitors according to congestion, and act to allow the proper holy fire ceremony, with the participation of many Christians and believers from around the country and from many countries in the world.
In order to maintain public safety and security, the participants were regulated in the area of ​​the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the areas adjacent to it in the Old City, in accordance with the number of crowds and loads and in accordance with the maximum safety and occupancy rules.
The limitation of the crowd during the ceremony in the area of ​​the church area, * was due to safety reasons only and in order to avoid overcrowding that could endanger the safety and security of the public*.
The purpose of the police activity was to enable the Christian public practice the freedom of worship and the ceremony to be held safely and securely and so it was.
During the day, the Minister of Public Affairs and the Commissioner of Police arrived at the scene, met with police commanders and policemen and received an overview from the Jerusalem district commander about the deployment and operational preparation of the police.
Recently, Israeli police officers have been working in Jerusalem day and night to maintain security, law and order, as well as to secure the residents, travelers, tourists and worshipers wherever they are.  As such, today’s Holy fire ceremony was a safe one for all participants , due  to the strenuous and prolonged activity of many policemen.
The Israel Police will continue to operate in order  to enable all worshipers to exercise their freedom of religion and worship throughout the Old City and in the holy places safely and securely.
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