Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi slammed Israel on Monday for actions that “threaten the presence of Christians in the Holy Land.”
Safadi, attending a meeting in Brussels between Arab and EU foreign ministers, was referring to a decision by Jerusalem church leaders on Sunday to close the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
That decision was made to protest two things: Jerusalem Municipality plans to collect property tax on church-owned properties that were not used as houses of worship; and legislation that would authorize the expropriation of lands sold by churches in return for compensation to the investors that purchased the properties.
Although the doors to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre were closed in the past – specifically in 1990 to protest Israeli policies – in Safadi’s telling of the events, the church was closed “for the first time in over 1,000 years.”
He said the decision to close the church, and the statement issued by leaders of the Catholic, Greek and Armenian denominations in charge of the site, is a “call for action against those illegal, unilateral acts that threaten the identity of the city and the presence of Christians in the Holy Land.”
Disappointed pilgrims pray outside closed doors of Holy Sepulchre Church, February 26, 2018 (Reuters)
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who hosted Safadi, said that she hoped a solution to the situation “can be found quickly.”
“Jerusalem is a holy city to the three monotheistic religions; this special status and character of the city must be preserved and respected by all,” she said.
David Rosen, the Jerusalem-based international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee, said that the timing of the decision to close the church “couldn’t have been worse,” from the point of view of Israel and Jerusalem’s image.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often speaks of the hospitable climate for Christians in Jerusalem and Israel, contrasting that with the much bleaker fate awaiting Christians in other parts of the region.
“I’m proud that Israel is a country in which Christians not only survive, but they thrive,” he said last Christmas in a taped message to the Christian world.
Rosen is currently in Vienna participating in an interreligious dialogue sponsored by the Saudis, Austrians, Spaniards and the Vatican. Among the participants is Jerusalem Grand Mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein.
Rosen said that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre issue “is the only thing he [Hussein] is talking about, to show how awful Israel is.”
According to Rosen, the issue “looks very bad, I’m afraid, and it is very easy for hostile elements to make negative propaganda out of it.”
Rosen said that the tax issue is a product of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s budgetary tussle with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, a dispute that led to the January pile-up of trash in the streets of the capital after municipal workers called a strike to protest layoff threats the mayor made to receive a higher budget.
And the issue concerning the expropriation of land – which the church leaders claim is similar to laws against Jews enacted “during the dark periods in Europe” – has to do with proposed legislation designed to protect hundreds of Jerusalem landowners whose property was built on land owned primarily by the churches – specifically the Greek Orthodox Church – but which has been sold to other investors, leading to uncertainty as to the future of those with homes on that property.
The legislation is opposed by the churches, Rosen said, because no future investor would want to buy church land knowing that it could be taken away by the state.
Rosen said that Netanyahu could “solve the problem immediately,” but “he has plenty of other worries on his plate at the moment, so I don’t think he is bothering with this issue.”
As a result, Rosen continued, the issue is “being allowed to fester, and is damaging Israel’s image.”
Referring to the gathering in Vienna, Rosen said the issue has been manipulated to present Israel as essentially hostile to Christianity.
“This serves the interest of our enemies,” he said, “and we are not able to do anything about it.”