Church near Garden of Gethsemane in East Jerusalem
Church near Garden of Gethsemane in East Jerusalem Photo by Michal Fattal
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Michal Fattal
Electricity pole in front of church in East Jerusalem Photo by Michal Fattal

Pope Francis is planning to visit Israel in the next few months, and the Prime Minister’s Office announced Wednesday that Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with the pontiff during his trip to Italy next week. In the meantime, however, a single electricity pole continues to bother the Catholic Church and taint relations between it and Israel.

The electricity pole was put up by the Israel Electric Corporation two years ago across from the church near the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. The site at the foot of the Mount of Olives is one of the holiest to Christians - the place where tradition says Jesus and his disciples prayed together before Jesus was arrested by the Romans and crucified the next day. The church there is one of the oldest and most impressive in Jerusalem.

The electricity pole was placed across from the church as part of the construction of a separate electricity infrastructure for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem, who have asked to be disconnected from the Jerusalem District Electricity Corporation, which supplies electricity to Arab neighborhoods on the city’s east side.

Jerusalem District Court Judge Yoram Noam on Wednesday criticized the Jerusalem municipality, which has allowed the IEC to place the electric pole in such a sensitive spot. “You wouldn’t have done it in the Kotel plaza,” said the judge off the record during a hearing on the matter Wednes.

The Custodia Terrae Sanctae, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land that has been authorized by popes for centuries to supervise the Christian holy sites here, filed an administrative petition a year and a half ago in court against the Jerusalem city engineer, the municipality and the IEC. The Catholic custodian claimed in the petition that the city illegally granted a building permit to the IEC for the pole.

“The huge pylon obstructs the view of the Old City from the prayer garden of the church used by pilgrims,” reads the petition. “One of the significant reasons for the popularity of the church is the unique view of the Temple Mount and the Old City, and the pylon utterly destroys this uniqueness.”

The court will decide

If the pole itself was not bad enough, the IEC has also placed a small transformer on it - and the police have added security cameras. The custody says the pole sits across from the altar where the pope will hold a mass, as did his predecessor.

The custodial vicar, Father Dobromir Jasztal, in practice the deputy custodian, took the unusual step of attending the court session yesterday. At the end of the hearing, the two sides agreed to transfer the matter to the appeals committee of the Jerusalem Regional Planning and Building Committee - and the petition was dismissed. But during the hearing the judge criticized the placement of the pole, saying it was a beautiful corner of Jerusalem and in addition a holy place. “Everyone who sees it asks what’s that? Today they don’t build that way anymore,” said Noam.

The Jerusalem municipality said: “The IEC is the one that determines the need for building electric poles or other equipment. The city does not deal with [such] considerations or circumstances. The city is interested in helping the Church in this matter with the IEC in order to move the electricity pole from its present location.”