Rivlin hosts Israel's Church leaders for early Christmas ceremony

Coronavirus has intruded on Christmas just as it intruded on Passover, Easter, the Miracle of Holy Fire, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

President Reuven Rivlin is seen meeting with Church leaders in a pre-Christmas ceremony (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin is seen meeting with Church leaders in a pre-Christmas ceremony
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
Christmas came early this year for some of the heads of Christian churches who gathered on Wednesday at the President’s Residence. They were there for the traditional pre-Christmas reception that the president hosts for spiritual and lay leaders of the various Christian denominations that minister to congregations in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Instead of mid-December, the reception was just after mid-November, and only the patriarchs or highest-ranking clergy of the Eastern and Latin churches were invited.
In the past, it was interesting to see the different cassocks worn by priests and the variety of habits by nuns in black, white, brown, purple, blue and gray. Priests who belonged to neither the Eastern nor the Latin Church usually wore dark suits with a black clerical shirt and a white dog collar. Despite their differences, they all joined enthusiastically in the Christmas carols, which were often sung in Arabic by singers from Nazareth.
But coronavirus has intruded on Christmas, just as it intruded on Passover, Easter, the Miracle of Holy Fire, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The pre-Christmas reception at the President’s Residence was thus limited to minimal participation – and turned out to be a working meeting rather than a festive celebration.
In addition to the religious dignitaries, the event was attended by Civil Administration head Lt.-Col. Eyal Zeevi. The church leaders were led by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III and included Latin Patriarch, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa; Custos of the Holy Land Father Francesco Patton; Greek Catholic Patriarch Joseph Matte; and Deputy Armenian Patriarch Archbishop Sevan Gharibian.
After congratulating Pizzaballa on his elevation in rank, President Reuven Rivlin spoke of the limitations that have been placed on the population by the novel coronavirus. In this context, he referred to the upcoming Christmas celebrations in the Latin Church in December and the Eastern Church in January.
While one of the cardinal values of Israel is freedom of worship, which he said will be protected at all costs, it is very important for Christian communities in the Holy Land to maintain health restrictions during the Christmas season. Rivlin mentioned both the PA and Israel in terms of observing the regulations. He was particularly concerned about Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem.
He also broached one of his favorite subjects in terms of Christian pilgrimage and worship – the Land of the Monasteries by the Jordan River, in which he has a keen interest. Now that the spirit of peace is looming over the Holy Land, he said, this is the time to join forces to complete the Land of the Monasteries project, which also provides an excellent opportunity for the resumption of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
THEOPHILOS ALSO had other issues on his mind, which he chose not to discuss.
He is currently embroiled in attempts to foil the takeover by Ateret Cohanim of church properties in Jerusalem’s Old City, in particular the disputed sale in 2004 of three buildings that include the Petra Hotel, which is primarily a pilgrim hostel, at the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City.
Ateret Cohanim allegedly purchased the property through a shell company, and has been making life miserable for the lessees of the hotel, who are finding it increasingly difficult to pay their debts.
Efforts by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to block the final transfer of the property to Ateret Cohanim were denied by the Jerusalem District Court, which appointed attorney Moshe Segal to be liquidator of the property.
The Greek Patriarchate has lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court against the ruling of the Jerusalem District Court and also contends that it is untenable that Segal be the liquidator. The Patriarchate claims that Segal is among the lawyers who represent Ateret Cohanim.
On Thursday of last week, Theophilos transferred NIS 2 million to the Jerusalem District Court to pay the debts of the lessees of the Petra Hotel, after having previously given them NIS 400,000. This was not easy for him in light of the current economic crisis.
Theophilos has stated that the Patriarchate will do everything possible to protect church properties in the Jaffa Gate area and its properties in general.
While this issue has nothing to do with Christmas, the Greek Patriarchate is waiting for a Christmas miracle, just as Israel’s residents of the Jewish faith are waiting for a Hanukkah miracle to rid the country of COVID-19 and all the distress that it has caused.