A simmering row over church land in Jerusalem has reached a head after church leaders in the Holy City yesterdayhit out at Israel for an alleged breach of a status quo that has been agreed for centuries.
The church leaders said in a joint statement that there is a 'systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and to weaken the Christian presence'.
They added: 'We now find ourselves united once again in condemning recent further encroachment on the status quo. In such matters as this, the Heads of the Churches are resolute and united in our opposition to any action by any authority or group that undermines those laws, agreements, and regulations that have ordered our life for centuries.'
The church leaders were referring to two controversial issues that have surfaced in recent months, according to the Jerusalem Post.
The first is a ruling last month in the Jerusalem District Court stating that the purchase of three major compounds, adjacent to the historic Jaffa Gate to the Old City, were carried out legally.
As a result, the compounds were transferred from the Greek-Orthodox church to the rightwing NGO Ateret Kohanim Yeshiva, according to a Maariv report.
The second issue is a bill proposed by the Kulanu MK (Member of the Knesset, or parliament) Rachel Azaria, signed by 39 other MKs across the political spectrum, that seeks to nationalise lands owned by churches in west Jerusalem and sold to private entrepreneurs.
Mainly in the 1950s, churches leased the disputed properties in west Jerusalem to the Jewish National Fund.
In the coming 20-50 years the lease periods will end, and the churches have reportedly sold pockets of the land to private entrepreneurs in a deal that affects the residents and creates future uncertainty. The bill proposes to compensate all sides that would be harmed from the nationalising of land.
The churches statement is signed by senior Christian leaders in Jerusalem from across denominations, including Greek Patriarch Theophilos III; Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian; Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa; and Archbishop Aba Embakob of the Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarchate.
The heads of churches added that they call on world leaders to intervene and help them protect the status quo.
The statement said: '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.
'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.'
Azaria, who is also a former Jerusalem city councilwoman, denied to The Jerusalem Post that there is any intention to weaken the Christian presence in the city.
'The land ownership bill I initiated has one goal only: to protect the residents. There is a group of wealthy entrepreneurs that bought the land from the church and thousands of residents in Jerusalem can find themselves homeless, after they purchased their homes fair and square,' she said. 'This law is not a breach of the status quo mainly because it does apply to church-owned lands, but only to the lands bought by real estate entrepreneurs.'