Custodian of the Holy Land Father Francesco Patton, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Metropolitan Theophilos and Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian, celebrate after signing agreements giving their approval for a restoration project for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusal.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
An old ladder leans against an outer wall of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City. Known as the immovable ladder, it is a testament to a stalemate on renovations that has lasted for over 250 years. The various sects that maintain chapels in the historic structure have been fearful of allowing any other group to make changes, lest it tip the delicate status quo.
Every Easter, thousands attend the Holy Fire ceremony at the historic site in the Old City, where many Christians believe Jesus was laid to rest.
Now, after several hundred years, renovations may finally take place after an agreement was signed between the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic churches, which have been the building’s primary custodians since the Ottoman era.
The multi-million dollar project will be funded by the various Christian groups and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
At a ceremony held at the Franciscan Monastery on nearby Mount Zion, leaders of the three churches signed a rare agreement.
“Today is really a special day: not only for us and for our Communities, which are in charge of the custody of the Holy Places, but it is important for the Holy City of Jerusalem, because everybody is now realizing and acknowledging that if Jerusalem maintains her Christian character as well, it depends on us as well.” stated Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox Church leader who is officially styled as Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem and all Palestine and Israel. “Therefore, our mission is very important, not only in religious terms but also in diplomatic terms and, inevitably, in political terms.”
Easter in Jerusalem 2019
A prelude to the planned major renovations took place in 2016, when work was done on a structure within the church building called the Tomb of Jesus, the first such work in generations. Called the Edicule, the burial bed made of rock was considered a safety hazard. The World Monuments Fund, which led the restoration, was joined by the Greek church and the king of Jordan.
Now, several years later, the rest of the church will be refurbished, with funding from the same entities as well as the Vatican and others. King Abudullah of Jordan has also promised to donate to the cause, according to the official Petra state news agency.
In February, Jerusalem church leaders closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for three days to protest announced plans by the city’s municipality to collect property tax (arnona) from church-owned properties on which there are no houses of worship.
Christian churches own large tracts of land on which residential apartment buildings and stores are located. Then-mayor Nir Barkat explained that churches themselves would not be taxed, just the property they own. “Does it make any sense for commercial areas with hotels and shops to be exempt from paying arnona just because they are owned by a church?” he asked. “For too many years, the state did not allow the municipality to collect the debts of these commercial areas... I would not allow the residents of Jerusalem to close this debt,” he said.
The city eventually halted the collection of property tax on church owned land and formed a committee with the Knesset to study the issue.
The subsequent quiet sale of over 500 dunam (125 acres) of church-owned land to private developers rocked the city. The land was leased for 99 years in 1952 to Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF). Now that the land has been quietly sold, homeowners in neighborhoods such as Rehavia, Baka and Katamon fear for the future. Of note is that the land the Knesset – Israel’s parliament – sits upon is also owned by church authorities.
Yet these issues may be irrelevant to the thousands of pilgrims and tourists who visit the site every year. The Christians who hold candles on Easter during the Holy Fire ceremony and others who marvel at the architecture and historical significance may not know the debate between Palestinians, Israelis and Christians, who lay claim to the city as so many have done throughout history. Since the Six Day War in 1967, people of all faiths have been able to visit the structure, which is located within the walls of the Old City, not too far from the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall: venerated holy sites for three faiths.
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