The peace of Jerusalem is being undermined along with open access to the holy Christian sites by the prospect of legislation which, if left unchecked, would be 'catastrophic,' the head of the Church in the Holy City has warned.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilus III, widely seen as the most senior Church figure in the Holy Land, issued the stark warning about the ability of religions to worship in peace side by side. He said 'enough is enough' at a press briefing in London today as part of an international tour to gain support for the position of the Church inside the Old City of Jerusalem.
The Patriarch was speaking at Westminster Cathedral immediately after meeting Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, and having met with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and other faith leaders.
Theophilus has been raising pressing issues in the Israeli parliament relating to the 'Status Quo' arrangement whereby Christians can live alongside people of other faiths in Jerusalem and its Old City.
In July, 40 members of the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, signed a proposed bill that would restrict the rights of the Churches to deal freely and independently with their lands and would threaten their confiscation. The bill proposes to allow the state to confiscate lands of the Churches that have been leased to third parties.
The Patriarch, who also visited king Abdulla II of Jordan, last month met at the Vatican with Pope Francis, who said: 'The Holy City, whose Status Quo must be defended and preserved, ought to be a place where all can live together peaceably; otherwise, the endless spiral of suffering will continue for all.'
He told journalists today: 'We have the great honour to be with you representing the Christian communities from the Holy City of Jerusalem, the cradle of Christianity as well as our Church which traces its roots back through one unbroken line to the very birth of Christianity in the first century...We have been mandated by all the Church leaders in the Holy Land to share our story and raise awareness of the challenges we are facing as a Christian community in Jerusalem.'
'Recently we have seen the emergence of a trend that threatens to undermine the Christian presence and destabilise the peace of the Holy City of Jerusalem. The "Status Quo" rule that has guaranteed the rights of Jews, Christians and Muslims to live, flourish and thrive together in Jerusalem for centuries is in grave danger. This code, that has safeguarded our religious freedoms and provided access to the most holy places for all people, is being dangerously undermined. If we do not act soon it will be too late. And the outcome will be catastrophic.
'Before, we stood silent, bearing patient witness to a harsh campaign against us and against our Church. Every day we face false accusations, suspicion and slander. Our detractors target our heritage and our integrity. Today, our calling and commitment to the Lord means We can accept this no longer and this has lead us to break our silence and simply say: enough is enough.'
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem faces discord on two fronts: one from Palestinian Christians who believe what the Patriarch's team insist are false reports claiming that the Church has sold property to the Israelis or 'Jews'; and the other from extremist Israeli settlers who want to drive non-Jews out of the Old City. A spokesperson for the Patriarch today claimed that the bill in the Knesset was 'linked' to settlers, who show no sign of being 'reigned in' by the current Israeli government led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
By chance, the Patriarch's visit coincides with a five-day trip to the UK by Netanyahu which begins today, to 'celebrate' the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.
The anniversary marks Arthur Balfour's famous letter to Lord Rothschild announcing that 'His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people'.
The British Prime Minister Theresa May has rejected Palestinian calls for a British apology over the 'broken promise' in the 1917 declaration, which also held that a national Jewish home should not prejudice the rights of 'existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine'.
In response to the bill proposed in July, the Patriarch and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem released a joint statement condemning the bill at the time. The statement 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, as well as on the stability of our society.
'We therefore, as those to whom Divine Providence has entrusted the care of both the Holy Sites and the pastoral oversight of the living, indigenous Christian communities of the Holy Land, call upon our fellow Church leaders and faithful around the world, as well as the heads of governments, and all people of good will, to support us in order to ensure that no further attempts are made from any quarter to change the historical Status Quo and its provisions and spirit.'
The Patriarch concluded today: 'We pray to God Almighty to strengthen us and our brethren in these harsh and difficult times. We thank God for all who care for us enough to write and share our story. May God crown all our efforts with success, so that justice is done and God's richest peace and blessing can reside with us all.'