It was a protest long overdue – and one that produced rapid results.
On Sunday, for the first time in living memory, Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre slammed shut its doors to worshippers and tourists. In justifying the closure of the site where it is believed Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected, Church leaders accused Israel of launching a “systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land”.
By Wednesday the church had reopened after Israel, bombarded with bad publicity, appeared to climb down.
Shuttering the church had threatened economic damage too. More than a quarter of Israel’s nearly 4 million visitors each year are Christian pilgrims. They and many other tourists come primarily to follow in the footsteps of Jesus – and the Holy Sepulchre is top of their sightseeing list.
The churches are right that the survival of a meaningful Palestinian Christian presence in the Holy Land hangs in the balance. Christians now comprise just 10 per cent of the large Palestinian minority in Israel – or about 2 per cent of Israel’s total population.
In the Palestinian territories, which are under belligerent Israeli occupation, Christian numbers have similarly plummeted.
But however serious the problem, the joint statement from Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic leaders was only tangentially concerned with the fate of this local community of believers. The protest was really about protecting the churches’ profits from real-estate and investment deals.
Power of evangelicals
The Christians of the Holy Land are overwhelmingly Palestinian, while the churches speaking on their behalf are overwhelmingly foreign. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Vatican are vast enterprises that are as concerned with their commercial viability and influence on the global stage as they are about the spiritual needs of any specific flock.
And nowhere is that fact more obvious and telling than in the cradle of the Christian faith – today split between Israel and the fragments of an embryonic Palestinian state.
The churches have long had to navigate a complex political game in the Middle East with Israel, the region’s key power-broker, and with Israel’s patron in Washington.
That task has grown more daunting in recent years, as Christian evangelical influence has come to dominate politics in the United States. Most US evangelicals are far more interested in “end-time” prophecies that require unthinking support for Israel and illegal Jewish settlements than they are in preserving a 2,000-year-old local Christian tradition.
The rising power of the evangelicals was exemplified in Donald Trump’s presidential election victory in late 2016, and his recent decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, terminating already frail hopes of a two-state solution.
These trends are simply accelerating a long-standing process in which Palestinian Christians, whether in Israel or under occupation, are fleeing the Holy Land.
Confined to overcrowded ghettoes by Israel, starved of economic and social opportunities, and victims like other Palestinians of trigger-happy Israeli security forces, many have tapped overseas networks of Christians to re-establish their lives in Europe or North America.
Notably, however, it was not this prolonged exodus that prompted the churches to close the doors of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, or the Nativity Church in Bethlehem.
No Catholic custodian or Greek patriarch has dared to take such a decisive and bold stance in solidarity with the Holy Land’s “living stones” – Palestine’s Christians.
Whatever the public relations spin, the Holy Sepulchre was shuttered chiefly because the churches’ business interests were in jeopardy.
That was why Aleef Sabbagh, a Palestinian member of the Orthodox Central Council that for many months has been trying to oust their Greek overlord, Patriarch Theophilos III, called the protest a “charade”.
He noted that local Christians had long demanded the closure of the Holy Sepulchre to protest Israeli policies but had always been overruled by church leaders.
The church did not shut during the second intifada, when Palestinians were being killed in large numbers, nor during Israel’s repeated attacks on Gaza.
When the statement from the heads of the churches angrily denounced Israel’s break with the “status quo”, they meant a financial status quo – what they termed their “rights and privileges” – that has chiefly benefitted the clerics of Italy and Greece.
At the heart of the stand-off with Israel were two issues that have incensed church leaders.
One was a recent decision by the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, to end the churches’ long-standing exemption from paying municipal taxes on their properties. Given the churches’ vast land holdings, the Jerusalem municipality hoped to collect more than $180m in back taxes.
The other concern was draconian legislation the Israeli government had drafted to seize properties that the churches – chiefly the Greek Orthodox Patriarch – had been leasing at knockdown prices to private Israeli developers and settler groups.
Despite the ostensible climbdown this week, Israel has not actually abandoned either of these policies. According to Israeli media, they have been “postponed”. History suggests that the Israeli authorities will simply wait for a better opportunity, or find a different route, to arrive at the same destination.
Israel’s long-standing approach has been to intimidate the Churches by all means possible. At different times it has frozen clerical work visas, and refused or delayed approval of senior appointments, including that of the Greek Orthodox patriarch himself. Israel regularly obstructs planning permits for church property. Meanwhile, far-right groups close to the governing coalition menace clergy in the streets and vandalise church property under cover of dark.
The latest efforts to financially “squeeze” the churches were designed to intensify the intimidation, stoking their debts to further weaken their standing. That would have been bad news for Palestinians, making the churches even more submissive in their dealings with Israel.
It would also have risked fuelling the sell-off of more Church land – to Israel – to pay off existing debts and avoid incurring future ones. Palestinians living on those lands, especially in Jerusalem, would then have been at Israel’s mercy.
Atallah Hanna, the only Palestinian archbishop in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, has rightly warned that Israel’s long-standing goal is to “empty” Jerusalem of its Palestinians.
Nonetheless, the foreign Christian leaderships are at least in part to blame for opening up a Pandora’s box on land matters in Jerusalem and elsewhere.
They have treated their extensive holdings, much of it land and property entrusted to them by Palestinian Christians and overseas pilgrims, as chips in a game of real-estate poker. Israel has been looking for a chance to raise the stakes.
The tax exemption was derived from the charitable status of the churches’ spiritual mission and their outreach work with Palestinian communities that included the provision of schools and hospitals.
But increasingly the churches have downgraded their charitable works and diversified into other, more clearly commercial ventures, such as shops, offices and restaurants. Pilgrimage hostels were redeveloped into well-appointed and profitable hotels.
Part of the money was then siphoned off to the mother countries rather then reinvested in strengthening local Palestinian communities.
Meanwhile, the Greek Orthodox Church has been cashing in its holdings in Jerusalem, Israel and the West Bank, selling long-term leases, and in some cases the title deeds, on these lands to private Israeli developers and settler organisations.
According to the Orthodox Central Council, real estate deals over the past decade may have earned the Greek Patriarchate more than $100m. Most local Christians are wondering where all that money went. Their communities certainly haven’t seen it.
Selling to settlers
Israel was squarely behind the transactions when the church was selling lands on which Palestinian families lived. Settlers, rather than the churches, did the dirty work of carrying out evictions.
But then the churches got greedier still. They started selling future leases on lands in West Jerusalem that had housed Israeli Jews since the 1950s. The investors are now preparing to turf out these Jews from their homes too, so that the prime real-estate locations can be redeveloped more profitably.
The Israeli government was enthusiastic about the evictions of Palestinian Christians, but has drawn a thick red line at the eviction of Jews. That provided the impetus for the new legislation to let Israel seize lands and properties leased by the churches.
The bill may have been shelved temporarily, but it or something similar will resurface because the problem it addresses has not gone away.
Betrayal of Muslims
In their protest statement, the churches not only ignored their years of unthinking collusion with Israel against Palestinian Christians, but also betrayed any lingering solidarity with Palestinian Muslims.
They suggested that Christians had been singled out for attack by what they termed Israel’s “unprecedented” policies targeting their financial interests. They added: “This reminds us all of laws of a similar nature which were enacted against the Jews during dark periods in Europe.”
In fact, the churches have been handled with kid gloves compared to the treatment of Palestinian Muslims and their religious institutions since 1948.
Christian endowment land may be under threat now, but almost all properties in a similar endowment for Muslims – the Waqf – were seized by Israel at the Jewish state’s birth. Muslim communities lost these lands and properties – in effect, their welfare net – 70 years ago.
Israel’s free hand
The fact is Palestinian Christians were long ago abandoned by their churches, which preferred to avoid a serious clash with Israel that would harm their larger interests.
That has left Israel with a relatively free had to act against Palestinian communities. Most recently it has been waging a relentless war of financial attrition against Christian-founded schools and hospitals – two key resources for Palestinian communities – in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem. The assault has barely registered with the Church leaderships.
Sensing its upper hand, Israel has sought to make Palestinian Christians in Israel more dependent on the state, rather than the Churches, in an effort to pressure them gradually into becoming US-style Christian Zionists.
It has established a new classification of nationality in Israel – “Aramaean” – to replace Palestinian Christians’ existing, more inclusive “Arab” nationality. The cultivation of a hardline Christian nationalism is intended to sow tensions with Palestinian Muslims.
At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched a campaign to pressure Palestinian Christians into serving in the Israeli army, with the intention of weakening a unifying Palestinian nationalism and physically pitting Palestinian Christians against Palestinian Muslims.
Close the doors again
These measures have so far been strenuously resisted by most Palestinian Christians, but that is no thanks to the Vatican or the Greek Patriarchate.
These foreign leaderships are culpable for their casual neglect of the Palestinian cause, their slash-and-burn policies towards local Christians, and their special pleading.
There were plenty of opportunities – more honorable ones – over the past decade to shut the Holy Land’s major Christian pilgrimage sites in protest.
The cause should not have been about safeguarding business interests, but about focusing global Christian attention on the incremental destruction of indigenous Palestinian communities, Christian and Muslim alike.
The churches have seen how effective closing the Holy Sepulchre can be. It is time to close the church’s doors again – and this time for the right reasons.
• First published in Middle East Eye.