The most senior Church leader in Jerusalem has warned that 'radical settlers' are threatening the ancient, religious 'status quo' in the Holy City by which Christians can live and worship in peace despite the stark political divisions there.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, wrote an opinion article in the Guardian yesterday on Orthodox Christmas highlighting a 'church lands' bill sponsored by settler groups and signed by 40 members of Israel's Knesset that would restrict the rights of churches to deal independently with their own land, as well as threats to Church land around the Jaffa gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.
He accused the settlers of an 'aggressive campaign of removing non-Jews from the City and from these strategic centres at the heart of the Christian quarter, threatening the very presence of Christians in the Holy Land'.
And in a reference to the political context in Jerusalem, and the move by the US unilaterally to recognise it as the capital of Israel, the Patriarch said: 'Much attention has been paid recently to political decisions recognising Jerusalem in one light or another. The media attention highlights the seemingly intractable political struggle here. But as well as the threat to the political status quo, there is a threat also to the religious status quo, a threat instigated by radical settlers in and around Jerusalem, the heart of Christianity. And one group that has always been a pillar of society in the Holy Land – Christians – seems to have been rendered invisible in this standoff.'
He continued: 'Christians have lived a history in the Holy Land that spans more than two millennia. We have survived countless invasions, and have flourished under many different forms of government. We know that our survival has depended on the principle that the holy places must be shared by and be accessible to all. For it is the holy places that have given meaning to the region for both inhabitants and conquerors of all faiths. The protection and accessibility of the holy places are understood through a set of rules called the "status quo", which has been followed by all religious and governmental authorities of the region through the ages.
'Now various sides want to claim the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, as the exclusive possession of only one people. This treats with contempt the mechanism that has maintained peace and our multi-religious landscape for generations.
'Jerusalem is a sacred gift, hallowed ground, for the entire world. Attempts to possess the holy city, or to define it in terms of exclusivity, will betray its true nature.'
The Patriarch, who has recently toured a number of countries including the UK, has won the support of international religious leaders in his plight to preserve the status quo including Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
Last month, he met with Prince Charles and the UK ministers Alistair Burt and Rory Stewart.
He wrote: 'The UK's Catholic Cardinal Vincent Nichols summed up the view of many when he told us that the proposed bill represented "an intolerable infringement of the status quo and the legitimate rights of the churches, and should be recognised for what it is: an attack on the property rights of the Christian community".'
In an unprecedentedly strident condemnation of 'the unacceptable activities of radical settler groups' the Patriarch said they 'are attempting to establish control over properties around the Jaffa gate'.
He went on: 'The properties in question are in the heart of Jerusalem's Christian quarter, the seat of all the patriarchates and headquarters of the churches, and less than 500m from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.'
'The Patriarchate has lodged an appeal with the Israeli high court of justice, but if our efforts prove unsuccessful the result would be immensely damaging to the integrity of the Old City. If the settler groups were to gain control of the properties, they would be able to pursue their aggressive campaign of removing non-Jews from the City and from these strategic centres at the heart of the Christian quarter, threatening the very presence of Christians in the Holy Land.'
The Patriarch concluded: 'We shall continue the fight for this cause because it is right and because it is our basic pastoral duty.'