The Jordanian and Palestinian governments have expressed support for a decision by Christian leaders in Jerusalem to shut the doors of a major church in protest of what the latter described as “discriminatory” Israeli policies.
In a rare and sudden move, Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox leaders in Jerusalem closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre indefinitely on Sunday, claiming there is a “systematic campaign of abuse” directed at the community.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located in occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City, is one of Christianity’s holiest sites. It is believed by many Christians to be the site of Jesus’ crucificion and burial, drawing millions of pilgrims every year.
Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani
expressed his country’s “full solidarity” with the churches in Jerusalem.
Under a 2013 agreement signed between Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, Jordan’s King Abdullah II is the custodian of the Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.
Al-Momani said Israel’s measures “violate international and humanitarian laws” and called on the Israeli government to “immediately reverse the decisions taken against churches.”
Church leaders said their decision was premised on several issues, including a bill recently introduced in Israel’s parliament that would allow the Israeli state to take over church properties leased to private companies.
Another development targeting churches, they said, was plans by the Israeli government to begin imposing taxes on church properties.
“These actions breach existing agreements and international obligations, which guarantee the rights and privileges of the Churches, in what seems as an attempt to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem,” church leaders said in a statement on Sunday.
A Palestinian government spokesperson, Yousif al-Mahmoud, said such steps constitute a new aggression targeting Jerusalem and the Palestinian people and their holy sites. He called on the international community to intervene to “stop Israeli practices”.
Jerusalem’s church authorities have been increasingly vocal in recent months, after leaders from the Greek Orthodox Church were accused of selling land to Israeli settlers in prime locations of the Old City.
In August, a Jerusalem court approved the purchase of the property by Ateret Cohanim – a settler group that has been working for decades to evict Palestinians from their homes and shops in the Old City.
The Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, Theophilos III, who announced the closure of the church, is believed to have been behind the sale, which caused hundreds of Palestinians to call for his removal.
Aleef Sabbagh, a member of the Central Orthodox Council, said that while the move to close the church is welcomed, he believes it may be a “charade”.
“The reaction against the taxes is part of a charade to sell Theophilos III as the face of nationalism and resistance to Israeli policies,” he told Al Jazeera from Jerusalem on Sunday.
“It has always been our demand to close the church, but he always used to refuse, and would allege that he was under pressure from the Israeli authorities not to do so. Then, he would solve problems with Israel in a way that no one knows,” Sabbagh said.
He added that although Palestinian Christians support any moves to deter the Israeli occupation’s encroachment on their holy sites, there needs to be more transparency within the church.
“The facts about what happens behind closed doors is not made public to us. We need to make everything public, so that we can defend ourselves properly against Israel,” Sabbagh said.