Jonah Marie de Belen Cuevas, 27, stands a few meters from the locked doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
“I am so near yet so far,” the special education teacher from the Philippines says, tears in her eyes, pointing to the shuttered ancient wooden doors with their iron fittings and locks.
“This was a lifetime dream for me. I’ve saved for this trip for so many years. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to come again,” she sighs. “I’m heartbroken.”
On Sunday, the heads of the Greek, Catholic and Armenian churches – who collectively manage the church in the Old City’s Christian Quarter – announced they were closing its doors, allowing no one in until further notice. The church has rarely been closed like this – the last time was in 1990, in protest at Israeli settlers taking over a Christian building.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre features the two holiest sites in Christianity: the site of Jesus’ crucifixion; and the site of the tomb where Christians believe Jesus was buried and resurrected. It also contains the last four (some argue five) Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa. For many pilgrims, it is also the climax of their trip to Israel as they follow Jesus’ last steps.
The Israeli Tourism Ministry said in January that of the 3.6 million estimated visitors to Israel in 2017, some 900,000 – or 25 percent – were Christian pilgrims. And the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is particularly busy at this time of year, as Christians have begun the 40-day period of Lent leading up to Easter (which this year falls on April 1 for Western Christians who follow the Gregorian calendar).
The decision to close the church is in protest at Jerusalem City Hall’s decision to act on a policy that any church properties that are not places of worship should be subject to municipal taxes. The municipality claims the three Christian denominations collectively owe some 186 million shekels ($53 million) in back taxes.
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The move to close the church was also timed to coincide with a meeting by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which had been scheduled to discuss a bill, to be applied retroactively, to allow the state to expropriate land in Jerusalem that the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have sold off since 2010 to private investors. Discussion of that bill has since been postponed.
Early Monday afternoon, the courtyard leading to the church doors is filled with pilgrims waiting in the warm winter sun. Some stand at a distance, reverently. Others press their bodies close to the ancient stone walls, praying silently. For over an hour, two men and a woman in their 30s stand near the barricades, kneeling and singing. A few clamber up some uneven stairs to peer in through windows; two young women in their twenties help an elderly woman up to peek inside.
Adeeb Joudeh holds up the foot-long, old iron key to the locked church doors. His ancestors were one of two Muslim families entrusted with the keys to the church in the 12th century, in an effort to halt the bloodshed between rival Christian groups. He poses with a group of Polish pilgrims, some of whom touch the key with their hands, then bring their hands to their lips.
“With this key, as a Muslim I help to bring peace to the Holy Sepulchre and to Jerusalem. But Israel wants to destroy that peace,” he says.
Nidal Aboud, a Palestinian Jerusalemite and professional chef, sits on the ground by the doorposts to the church. “I am a religious man. I will stay here to pray, and to protest,” he says. “Israel thinks it can destroy our Christianity here, but we will not allow that to happen.”
Diana Osmanowa, 23, a teacher from Moscow, Russia, says she doesn’t care about the politics and is angry at both Israel and the church leaders. “I am an innocent, devout woman,” she says, adding, “I left my children with a caretaker and came all this way to pray where my Lord was buried and resurrected. Politics and religion should not be mixed.”
Tatiana, who didn’t want to give her last name, is from Ukraine, her gray hair covered by a scarf. “I cry for our Lord. And I cry for myself because I came all this way but I cannot see His place,” she sobs.
Wajeeh Nuseibeh stands to the side of the doors. His Muslim family is the other one that was put in charge of allowing the faithful to enter the church. “For hundreds of years, my family has opened the doors to the church every morning,” he says. “But I must follow the orders of the heads of the churches, who have told me I must close [them]. This is because the municipality does not respect the Christians. I am sad for the pilgrims.”
Therese Tchouassi, 63, from Cameroon in central Africa, weeps openly. “I am a poor woman, I sold food in the market,” she says. “My son saved to give me this trip. I will never be able to come again. This was my dream, but at least I will find strength from being so close to Jesus.”