Jews, Christians and Muslims Unite to Repair Mount Zion Cemeteries

Volunteers aim to ‘rescue Israel’s honor’ after a raft of hate crimes have produced no arrests.

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The last supper room in Jerusalem, Cenacle, Mount Zion, 2008.Credit: Wikicommons

Thursday morning's arson attack on a Greek Orthodox seminary on Mount Zion joins a long list of hate crimes by Jews against Christian and Muslim residents of the mount. Dozens of cases of violence have been registered over two years including arson and graffiti attacks, the smashing of gravestones and spitting at priests. In most cases, the police have made no arrests.

Last May, in the run-up to Pope Francis’ visit to the region, tensions on Mount Zion worsened amid rumors that the government would transfer control of David’s Tomb – a building whose upper floor is thought to be the location of the Last Supper – to the Vatican. Demonstrations were held at the site and there were calls for attacks on Christians living there.

In recent days, posters have reappeared calling for vigorous action against “the transfer of David’s Tomb to the Christians.”

“King David’s Tomb is in danger and you’re sleeping?” the posters say. “Prepare for a global battle that will shake the entire world. Now, in the run-up to the election, the left-wing parties have promised, with help from Christian foundations, to help transfer David’s Tomb to the Christians.”

The latest attack was apparently also linked to last week’s evacuation of a West Bank settlement outpost called Geulat Zion; alongside curses against Jesus and Mary scrawled on the seminary’s wall were the words “Geulat Zion.”

Against this background, Israelis have been working with Mount Zion churches in recent months to repair damage to cemeteries belonging to Jews, Christians or Muslims, whether due to vandalism or simply the ravages of time.

The first project, sponsored by the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, is the restoration of the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion. The cemetery has been desecrated repeatedly, most recently two years ago when dozens of gravestones were smashed, including those of several important Jerusalemites of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The work was done by master masons – Circassians from northern Israel – with funding from the preservation society.

“We did this to correct, at least a little, the bad impression left by the authorities’ failure to deal with the hate crimes,” said architect Gil Gordon, who oversaw the work. “They haven’t caught and indicted a single person, and the mayor is ignoring it. If you like, we’re doing this to rescue Israel’s honor, so they’ll know there are also people who care.”

After the gravestones were repaired, groups of volunteers — ranging from religious Israeli Jews to overseas Christians studying here — began cleaning up the cemetery and tending the greenery. Four clean-up days have been held so far, and the fifth, by students from a pre-military academy, will take place Friday.

The organizers are talking with the Armenian Church about restoring its cemetery, and also with the Dajanis, a Palestinian family that has long taken care of Mount Zion’s cemeteries. Next week the volunteers are expected to begin cleaning up the mount’s Muslim cemetery. After that they plan to restore the Sambursky Cemetery, a Jewish site on the mount.

In addition to cleaning up the cemeteries, the volunteers are documenting the graves, some of them very old.

“We began the project after dozens of crosses in the Protestant cemetery were broken,” said Dr. Yisca Harani, a historian of Christianity and one of the project’s initiators. The volunteers, she added, “came not just to show solidarity, but to show commitment and try to remind people that Jerusalem is a multicultural city where we all live, and will continue to live, side by side.”

Once Mount Zion’s cemeteries have been restored, the plan is to create a tourist route that will cover both the cemeteries and the site’s many cultures and faiths.

Meanwhile, two solidarity visits to the vandalized seminary are planned for Friday by leaders of the Reform Movement and activists from the Tag Meir organization.