Church leaders in Jerusalem have accused Israel of undermining Christianity in the Holy Land and weakening the faith at a time of severe tensions in the Middle East.
The heads of Jerusalem’s major churches—including its Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Lutheran denominations, among others—criticized Israel’s lawmakers and its courts following a ruling that mandates the sale of church buildings to a Jewish settler organization.
The church leaders protested the transfer of the ownership of three church buildings belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem’s Old City to the Ateret Cohanim Association. They also put themselves in direct opposition to a bill which would make all church land sold to private citizens the property of the state.
“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,” the statement from the church leaders read.
“We affirm in the clearest possible terms that a vital, vibrant Christian community is an essential element in the makeup of our diverse society, and threats to the Christian community can only increase the troubling tensions that have emerged in these turbulent times,” it added.
The bill, opposed by the Jerusalem churches, is intended to protect private citizens buying the land who are resident in the old city. The churches fear that the bill, by lawmaker Rachel Azaria, will hurt their ability to make future property deals in Israel.
Two weeks ago Jerusalem’s district court ruled that the purchase of two historic buildings at the Old City’s Jaffa Gate and another in the Muslim Quarter from the Greek Orthodox Church was valid. According to Haaretz, the church was fighting the sale on the grounds that the deal was corrupt.
The ruling in favor of the right-wing organization will allow it to expand its operations in key east Jerusalem locations after more than a decade of legal wrangling.The three sales contracts for the buildings were first signed in 2004. The controversy over the sales began in 2005 when Theophilus III, the head of the Greek Othodox Church in Jerusalem waged a legal battle against Ateret Cohanim in an attempt to void the purchases.
“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 leaders 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,” they added.
However, Azaria said once the sales are completed, the protests from the church are secondary to dealing with residents in one of the properties, a Palestinian family who are to be evicted, and the concerns of the investors.
“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,” she added.