Battle of the burial sites

Garden Tomb in legal fight against Muslim encroachment.

garden tomb 521 (photo credit: Garden Tomb photos)
garden tomb 521
(photo credit: Garden Tomb photos)
For the past two years, the Garden Tomb in eastern Jerusalem has been waging a dogged legal battle against the local Wakf Muslim religious trust to protect the popular Protestant site from a reckless expansion project at an adjacent Islamic cemetery, and a recent court hearing on the dispute ended with a resolution still in doubt.
The two-year dispute has been frustrating for the overseers of the Garden Tomb as they seek to protect a first century burial cave that is considered the most significant Protestant holy site in Israel, as some believe it marks the place where Jesus was buried and resurrected.
In the summer of 2010, Richard Meryon, director of the Garden Tomb, discovered that the local Wakf authorities were expanding a neighboring cemetery in a way that was endangering a main boundary wall around his popular Christian site. The work project involved building a wall directly above a large stone retaining wall marking the edge of the Garden Tomb property, and thereby threatening it with collapse.
“The construction was happening without any permission,” Meryon recently told The Christian Edition.
Upon learning of the unauthorized Wakf construction activities, the municipality of Jerusalem issued a stay, but it was ignored. A few weeks later, Jerusalem police entered the site and the construction was temporarily halted.
Over the fall months of 2010, Meryon met regularly with local Wakf officials to work out an amicable solution, but to no avail. The workers soon returned and began erecting what grew into a fivemeter wall on top of the Garden Tomb’s existing five-meter retaining wall.
Meryon soon learned that the goal of the Wakf construction project was to fill behind the wall in order to create space for more graves.
So the Garden Tomb hired Israeli engineering experts in cemeteries and foundations to come assess the feasibility and impact of the project. They confirmed Meryon’s concerns that the whole structure could come tumbling down onto the Garden’s side.
The stone wall of the Garden has been standing in place since 1905. It has no lateral reinforcement, as it was erected mainly as a safety fence to mark the border of the Garden Tomb compound.
The geo-technicians found that the current wall is stable and has withstood all the earthquakes and winter storms over the past century. However, with the added pressure and weight of fill material and a concrete wall built on top of it, the wall could be in serious danger of collapsing.
In December 2010, the Garden Tomb made a proposal to the Wakf engineers to make the wall safer, which was at first well received. Nevertheless, three weeks later Meryon was told they could not accept the plan unless the Garden Tomb paid for all the structural work.
Frustrated by the lack of cooperation, the Garden Tomb decided to take the Islamic Wakf to court the following April.
“After nine months of negotiations, which were our best effort to work with our neighbors, to be a good neighbor, we saw no effects,” Meryon lamented. “The Wakf must have known they were not permitted to build, and I don’t consider that being a good neighbor. In Islam, being a good neighbor is more important than being in good family relations.”
In the autumn of 2011, it was finally decided to secure the walls together and anchor them into the bedrock, to prevent the entire structure from potentially collapsing. Both sides agreed to appoint independent engineers to make a new assessment which would be implemented at the cost of the Wakf.
While the Garden Tomb suggested three independent Israeli engineers, who were neither Christian nor Muslim, the Wakf put forth eight Palestinian engineers, all Muslim and all working in east Jerusalem for the Wakf. Each side rejected the other’s names.
Yet the Wakf ignored the city’s stop-work order again and began its own construction activities, filling the six meters of space between the two walls with dirt. In March 2012, the Wakf put in 66 new graves in the area where the anchoring project was supposed to be located.
In July of this year, a Jerusalem district court again banned any further construction work until the engineers have agreed on an assessment. Yet this decision also was ignored by the Wakf.
Between July and October, there have been significant building activities in the cemetery. Meryon has kept record of all the changes he could easily observe from the Garden Tomb grounds, and submitted his accounts to the court ahead of a hearing on October 23. The court ordered the appointment of an independent engineer who must report back to the judge with a recommended solution.
The judge also threatened to fine the Wakf for further building.
“We are not against the cemetery. We are in full support of them improving the site. But we have still not received an explanation why they are building atop the wall of the Garden Tomb,” Meryon said. “My only concern is the safety of the Garden. I am not fighting for aesthetics, even though I would prefer not to have a concrete wall towering over us. We are purely concerned about the safety of the Garden for our visitors.”
As the struggle continues, the Garden Tomb remains open to visitors, while the staff of the site takes precautions to ensure no one on the premises gets harmed. Nevertheless, if the Muslim cemetery keeps expanding without the needed precautionary measures in place, an important Christian site in Jerusalem is looking at a disaster in the making.