Jerusalem Churches Warn of Israel's 'Systematic' Erosion of Christian Presence in Holy Land

Catholic, Ethiopian, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Syrian and other churches in Jerusalem protest what they see as a major change to the status quo

An Orthodox worshipper carry a cross near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during the Eastern Church's Good Friday procession in the Old City of Jerusalem
Tess Scheflan / Jini

Church leaders in Jerusalem took the unusual step of issuing a statement protesting a recent ruling by a court in the capital instructing the Greek Orthodox Church to sell three buildings in the Old City to a Jewish settler organization. The statement also expressed opposition to an Israeli bill that would transfer ownership of church land sold to private citizens to the state.

The statement, published on Monday, was signed by the heads of the Catholic, Ethiopian, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, Syrian and other churches in Jerusalem. In it they protest what they see as a major change to the status quo, and assert that the bill and the court’s ruling hurt not only the Greek Orthodox Church but also the standing of all of Jerusalem’s churches.

“We see in these actions a systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and to weaken the Christian presence. We affirm in the clearest possible terms that a vital, vibrant Christian community is an essential element in the make-up of our diverse society, and threats to the Christian community can only increase the troubling tensions that have emerged in these turbulent times,” the statement read.

The bill, submitted by lawmaker Rachel Azaria (Kulanu), states that all land belonging to churches that was sold to private investors be transferred to the state in return for compensation. The churches fear that if the bill passes, it will hurt their ability to make future real estate deals in Israel.

Two weeks ago, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that Ateret Cohanim's purchase of two monumental buildings at the Old City's Jaffa Gate and another building in the Muslim Quarter from the Greek Orthodox Church is valid. The court rejected the church’s argument that it was a corrupt deal that should be voided.

“Such attempts to undermine the Christian community of Jerusalem and the Holy Land do not affect one Church only; they affect us all, and they affect Christians and all people of good will around the world,” the church leaders’ statement went on to say.

“We have always been faithful to our mission to ensure that Jerusalem and the Holy Sites are open to all, without distinction or discrimination, and we are unanimous in our support of the actions, including a High Court appeal, against the judgement in the ‘Jaffa Gate’ case and in our opposition to any proposed law that would restrict the rights of the Churches over our properties.”

Church leaders also called for Israel to be pressured to keep the bill from advancing.

“We therefore, as those to whom Divine Providence has entrusted the care of both the Holy Sites and the pastoral oversight of the living, indigenous Christian communities of the Holy Land, call upon our fellow Church leaders and faithful around the world, as well as the heads of governments, and all people of good will, to support us in order to ensure that no further attempts are made from any quarter to change the historical Status Quo and its provisions and spirit,” the statement said.

“We cannot stress strongly enough the very serious situation that this recent systematic assault on the Status Quo has had on the integrity of Jerusalem and on the well-being of the Christian communities of the Holy Land, as well as on the stability of our society. We, the Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem, stand resolutely together in working for reconciliation and for a just and lasting peace in our region, and we ask God’s blessings on all the peoples of our beloved Holy Land,” the statement concluded.

“I am working to resolve the residents’ real problem. This is about the investors who bought the lands, not about the church,” Azaria said in response to the statement. “Our goal is to protect the people who live in the apartments and don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We have always respected the church. But as soon as the sales are made to anonymous buyers, that’s who we are dealing with, and it’s not connected to the church. I have a responsibility to the people who live in the apartments. For me, the question is, 'how do I protect the residents of Jerusalem?'”

Itai Gutler, a Jerusalem city council member from the Yerushalmim faction and a founder of the action committee addressing the issue of church lands, says: “Contrary to the church’s claims, the struggle of hundreds of families for whom the future of their homes is uncertain due to the lease agreements is entirely a social issue and not a political issue. There is no connection whatsoever between it and the legal dispute over the properties at Jaffa Gate, and any attempt to portray things otherwise is deliberately misleading. We will continue to work toward a solution to the issue in every way possible.”