The Israel Police forcefully evacuated several Coptic monks from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Wednesday and arrested one of them.
Coptic officials warned that this could lead to widespread protests against Israel, including by the Egyptian government, which is the patron of the Coptic Church in Jerusalem.
The ceiling of St. Michael's Church, part of the historic Deir al-Sultan monastery on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, has been in danger of collapse for over a decade. The Jerusalem municipality therefore issued a closure order for it in 2017.
The Interior Ministry said it would pay for renovations back in 2014. But because of a long-standing dispute between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, whose clergy live at the site, and the Coptic Church, which claims ownership over it, the parties had not managed to reach an agreement that would allow renovations to proceed.
In 1970, under the auspices of Israeli police forces, Ethiopian monks entered the compound and the place has remained in Ethiopian hands since, despite an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that ordered the return of the church to the Copts.
Due to the tension, Israel decided that the renovations would be carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority. The Copts agreed, as long as one of the priests would oversee the work and that they would pay for it themselves. Israel did not accept these terms, however.
On Wednesday, when Antiquities Authority officials arrived at the site to begin the renovation work, several Coptic priests sat at the entrance to the church and refused to allow them entry. Police arrived at the site and arrested one of them, who was released shortly after the intervention of the Egyptian embassy. Attorney Mazen Kopti, who represents the church, said that he intends to appeal to the court and demand an order to stop the work.
According to the police, "The police initially held a conversation and warned those who blocked the entrance that if they did not vacate the area and allow the workers to enter, police would have to evacuate them according to the law. Since they refused to move, the police had to arrest one of them who blatantly violated the order and even tried to attack police officers." Police added that "the fact that these people are religious clerics does not allow them to disturb public order, to not obey police orders and to break the law."
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