Christians in Jerusalem's Old City under threat from 'hostile radical settlers'

Christians in Jerusalem say their presence in the Old City is under threat from intimidation, with priests being spat at and abused, alongside aggressive property acquisition by hardline and 'hostile' Jewish settlers, the Guardian has reported.

The churches say they are facing onslaught on three fronts, according to the paper's report from Jerusalem: a war of attrition waged by hardline settlers; unprecedented tax demands by Jerusalem city council; and a proposal to allow the expropriation of church land put up for sale.

It was this onslaught that led to the unprecedented three-day closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in protest in late February, but the issues behind that move are ongoing.

Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem and the most senior Christian leader in the Holy Land, told the Guardian: 'Today the church faces a most severe threat at the hands of certain settler groups. The settlers are persistent in their attempts to erode the presence of the Christian community in Jerusalem.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, announces the closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in FebruaryReuters

'These radical settler groups are highly organised. Over the last years we have witnessed the desecration and vandalism of an unprecedented number of churches and holy sites and receive growing numbers of reports from priests and local worshippers who have been assaulted and attacked.

'Where the authorities are concerned, this behaviour goes largely unchecked and unpunished.'

Moni Shama, a church caretaker on Mount Zion, which lies just outside the Old City walls, said that undeveloped land owned by the church and often referred to as the 'Greek garden' is regularly vandalised.

The caretaker said that trees have been uprooted, garbage left, graffiti scrawled on stones and paint thrown inside the ancient Chapel of Pentecost. A Greek Orthodox seminary at the site was set alight three years ago.

The Greek Orthodox church – which is the oldest Christian presence in the Old City – is also deeply concerned about attempts to gain control of properties it owns close to Jaffa Gate, the main entrance to the Christian and Armenian quarters.

Later this year, a court ruling is expected on a disputed sale of the historic Imperial and Petra hotels. The Greek Orthodox church has challenged a deal made by an official under the previous patriarch which, it claims, involved bribery and conspiracy and was therefore invalid. The church is appealing after already losing one case on the sale.

The church says that the settler organisation Ateret Cohanim is behind the purchase of the properties, which are strategically significant, as part of a drive to increase the Jewish presence in the Old City. The settler organisation, which is dedicated to the 'physical and spiritual redemption' of the Old City, has been frequently accused of using third parties to buy properties.

Abu Walid Dajani, whose family has managed the 45-room Imperial Hotel for almost 70 years, told the Guardian that the prospect of ownership changing hands from the Greek Orthodox church to Ateret Cohanim was a 'nightmare'.

Dajani, 74, said: 'If I used to wake up twice a night, now I wake up four times, thinking what if the decision goes in favour of Ateret Cohanim. I will try my best to keep this hotel, but I know they want us out.'

Gabi Hani, whose restaurant Versavee is next to the hotel, added: 'They [Ateret Cohanim] want to drive Christians out, for sure.

'If you have a hostile organisation sitting in your home, it is no longer your home.'

However Daniel Luria of Ateret Cohanim said: 'Claims or accusations by the Greek Patriarchate regarding "radical settlers" targeting their priests with verbal abuse etc are absurd, unacceptable and disgraceful.'

Luria denied that the organisation wanted Christians to leave the Old City, and declined to comment on the issue of the Jaffa Gate sales. He said: 'Ateret Cohanim believes in coexistence with Christians and Muslims alike, living side by side without fences or borders, living in any neighbourhood of Jerusalem.

'The concept of disallowing Jews to live in certain areas is foreign and unacceptable. Christian and Muslim Arabs buy and live quietly side by side with Jews in predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods, so why couldn't or shouldn't Jews purchase and live in predominantly Arab neighbourhoods?'

In February, the Jerusalem city council issued churches with a demand for nearly $200m (£143m) in back taxes, in a separate development but one which Christians say is part of a pattern. It was at this point that church leaders agreed to close the Holy Sepulchre, when thousands of pilgrims were locked out.

The tax bill came after a decision that a tax exemption for places of worship had been wrongly applied to church-owned commercial properties. The churches point out that they pay taxes on purely commercial properties, such as restaurants and hotels, but many of those that the council says are liable provide educational, medical and welfare facilities for Christians and others.

The closure of the Holy Sepulchre was lifted only after the intervention of Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who set up a committee to look into the issue of church taxes, and temporarily halted the progress of a proposed law to expropriate church lands that could be sold to private developers.

A view of JerusalemPixabay

Some 40 members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, support the bill. They say the Greek Orthodox church is selling off land at discount prices to private developers, which puts leaseholders at risk. The Greek Orthodox church owns about a third of land in the Old City and key sites around Jerusalem. These include the land on which the Knesset, government offices and the Israel Museum are built.

In recent months, Theophilos has travelled to the UK, the Vatican, the US and elsewhere to seek support for Christian institutions in the heart of the Holy Land. In the UK, he met Prince Charles, government ministers and Christian leaders, including Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Vincent Nichols as well as the Coptic archbishop of London.

The patriarch is seeking help in securing a commitment to the continuation of the status quo, an agreement allowing Christians to live and worship in peace in the Holy City despite the conflicts and divisions in the region.

Pope Francis is among Christian leaders who have called for the status quo to be respected.