Taken from the Guardian – written by Patriarch Theophilos III
Today, 7 January, is Christmas, according to the Orthodox Christian cale
ndar. And Orthodox Christians are keeping the feast in the Holy Land, where Christmas – and Christianity – began.
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.
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.
When the successor of the prophet Muhammad, Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab, invaded Jerusalem in 637, he was greeted by Patriarch Sophronios, the then ethno-religious leader of Jerusalem. Together they signed a covenant that paved the way for an era of peace. This covenant was based on an understanding of shared custodianship of the holy places.
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.
Recently Christian communities from the Holy Land came to the UK to seek support for our plight in the face of legal and land threats to the Christian church in the Holy Land. We were moved that church leaders from across the UK came to our support. In meetings with Prince Charles and government ministers, as well as with church leaders, we highlighted a proposed “church lands” bill signed by 40 members of Israel’s Knesset that would restrict the rights of churches to deal independently with their own land. We also discussed threats to church land around the Jaffa gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.
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 addition to the church lands bill, one of the foremost threats to Christians in the Holy Land is the unacceptable activities of radical settler groups, which are attempting to establish control over properties around the Jaffa gate. 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 Christian understanding of holy places is that all people have claims to the sanctity of their holy places, because holiness is a divine characteristic, not a human one. No party should ever be able to make an exclusive claim over a holy place – in this case, over the holy city of Jerusalem.
We shall continue the fight for this cause because it is right and because it is our basic pastoral duty.
• Theophilos III is the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem