ESTABLISHED 1888 HERALDCATHOLIC
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem
In the medieval maps of the world, the mappae mundi, Jerusalem was the place at the centre of the earth, around which all the rest gravitated. Over the course of its history the city has seen empires come and go and the violent displacement and arrival of peoples and it now stands as a place sacred to three faiths: Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Armenian Patriarch in procession with the cross (which the Israeli press took commendably seriously). In some cases the aggression is physical. In Britain, these would be hate crimes.
The Christians of Jerusalem are its most vulnerable group. There are now only about 10,000 in the city, a drastic reduction from the number before the foundation of Israel, less than two per cent of the population. The local Christian population is overwhelmingly Arab, but there is also the significant and historic Armenian community, as well as migrant workers and the clergy and religious from all over the world who gravitate to Jerusalem. And, of course, there are countless pilgrims from every nation on earth, speaking more languages than on the day of Pentecost.
Then there are the more serious attempts by these groups at acquiring land in the Christian quarter, such as the highly suspect purchases made by Ateret Cohanim – challenged by the Greek Orthodox patriarch in the courts – of the Imperial and the Little Petra hotels right next to the Jaffa Gate, a site of huge symbolic significance to Christians, and of the hostel of St John close to the Holy Sepulchre. No one of course objects to people of any religion buying property anywhere in the city but where the agenda of these purchases is to assert an aggressive and hostile presence, they have a much more sinister aspect.
Jerusalem is not
The good news is that the pilgrims are back. After the terrible years of Covid when they were absent – which took a dreadful toll on the local economy – the Holy Places are once again swarming with the faithful and with tourists who seek to follow the footsteps of Christ.
just a place for pilgrim visitors, but the centre of a living Church, expressed in the life of individual
But it is important to reflect that Jerusalem is not just a place for pilgrim visitors, but the centre of a living Church, expressed in the life of individual Churches – including Latin Rite Catholics and the Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities. It is not a holy theme park. And the problems for the Churches are very real. They derive chiefly from the aggressive activities of radical Jewish groups, many of them settlers funded from abroad, such as Ateret Cohanim and the related Elad organisation.
Still more serious is the attempt to extend the National Park within the Mount of Olives. This is obviously a site with enormous resonance for Christians. Much of this area, to the east of the city, is owned by the Churches or by local Palestinians, yet there are repeated attempts under the auspices of the National Park authority to build a promenade across the site, linking two Jewish settlements – potentially part of a larger plan to encircle the city. It is inimical to the sacred character of the place. As the Jewish human rights group Ir Amim, points out, if the development attracts Israeli visitors they are likely to be given police protection from Palestinians and the upshot will be that the place will become unsafe for the Palestinian residents. The owners of the land will have no control over how it is developed. The National Park plan is constantly being shelved, under protest from the Churches, but never quashed; it is due to be examined again in August. Moreover, the area is in the Occupied Territories, not properly subject to Israeli environmental laws.
They see Jerusalem as a Jewish city, where the presence of others is at best tolerated. They are unrepresentative of the majority of Israelis, who are mostly indifferent to their activities, and opposed by a number of Jewish human-rights groups. But their agenda is represented by parties within the Israeli government, particularly given its make-up after the last election.
The aggression is expressed in both low-level hostility and in systematic land grabs. The day-to-day hostility is seen in the young radicals who spit at and verbally abuse churches and clergy – only recently, an armed soldier in uniform spat at the
Municipal authorities have little respect for the character of the Christian quarter: they organise cultural events outside churches and monasteries without consultation or allow noisy events through the night. The police close parts of the Christian quarter at will; meaning that for days, monks and friars can neither enter nor leave their monasteries. All this is tantamount to an increasingly hostile environment. The good news is that the Churches are acting in unity against these threats. But they need backing from outside – and that means us.
JANUARY 2023 ● CATHOLIC HERALD 1
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