An unholy mess

Illegal extensions to religious sites are always a sensitive matter, but Ein Kerem residents are fed up with the city’s delay in responding to a structure being built by the Russian Orthodox Church

Russian Orthodox Church521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Russian Orthodox Church521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Being regarded as a holy city by millions of people around the world is generally considered to be a blessing. Who wouldn’t want to breathe the air of a holy city at least once in one’s lifetime? Thus Jerusalem is the desired destination of countless pilgrims of all three major monotheistic faiths – a situation that brings a lot of very earthly advantages to this city. Pilgrims naturally appreciate the fact that once they arrive here, they can find many familiar sites related to their home country or religious stream. Over the years, representatives of the many streams – more precisely, the many denominations of Christianity – have installed, in addition to churches, a good number of hostels and homes for the pilgrims.
However, these small pilgrim hostels in the church compounds have been a source of tension for the local authorities with regard to their legal status in terms of taxes and so on. The same problem holds true with regard to synagogues, which often add annexes that start out as Torah study rooms and end up as banquet halls, with or without the proper municipal permit. In both cases, much sensitivity is required, though for slightly different reasons.
In the case of illegal construction or use in synagogues, pressure from the haredi benches on the city council must be taken into account (at least that was the situation until not so long ago). In the case of the churches – which are international bodies – the sensitivity has been very high.
As for the Muslim aspect in the same situation, the major problem is the repeated attempts to build mosques in sensitive locations, such as under the walls of the Old City on the side close to the Mount of Olives, mostly for political reasons, and, in most cases, without a construction permit.
In all these cases, while the official position of the municipality has been that the law is administered equally to all parties, in reality – and this applies mainly to the churches – very little has been done for fear that any official action might cause an international diplomatic incident. The Foreign Ministry has always monitored these issues closely, trying to find a path between the requirements of the law and the needs of the state to preserve the special relationship it has the Christian world, especially at the Vatican. It is important to note that over the years a few interim agreements have been made, and slowly but surely things have come to a peaceful conclusion, whether it was with regard to illegal construction or, in most cases, heavy debts the churches owed on utilities or property tax.
The latest event of this kind concerns a massive construction being built in Ein Kerem by the Russian Orthodox Church (easily recognizable by its multiple golden onion-shaped roofs). For the past few months, a large structure – the official purpose of which no one seems to know – is being constructed without a permit and, according to the local neighborhood council of Yuvalim, it is jeopardizing the preservation of some historical sites and archeological finds. In addition, the waste material is being dumped into the valley, compounding the damage caused to the landscape and the environment.
“In any such case of blatant breaking of the law, we would have seen a rapid and tough reaction from the authorities,” says a high-ranking employee in the Construction Permit Department at Safra Square. “But the fact that it is a church makes it a sensitive issue, and we have to act very cautiously. No one wants to see a local issue turning into an international scandal that would harm the State of Israel and its relations with the Russians.”
But what applies to the authorities does not necessarily apply to the residents, and they have made it clear, through their representatives on the neighborhood council, that if the municipality does not take action soon, they will decide for themselves how to react to the situation.
Officially, the case is being handled at the municipality like any other instance of illegal construction.
In fact, there is a lot of embarrassment as to how to handle the matter, and so far, according to the aforementioned source, no instructions have been sent from the Foreign Ministry. Considering the fact that the country doesn’t have a foreign minister, this might take some time. •