The European Union has warned that the heritage and traditions of the Christian community and the established religious equilibrium in the Old City of Jerusalem are at risk after Israel’s Supreme Court legitimized the takeover of Greek Orthodox properties by a Jewish settler group.
The Office of the European Union Representative in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip expressed concern over last week’s ruling by the country’s top court that ruled Jewish settler group Ateret Cohanim legally purchased the Little Petra Hotel and Imperial Hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem in 2004.
The properties are located in the Jaffa Gate area, which lies on the pilgrim route to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church was built on the spot where Catholics and Orthodox Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.
“Attempts by settlers to take over Christian property in the Old City of Jerusalem must be halted as they jeopardize the heritage and traditions of the Christian community,” a representative of the European Union in Palestinian territories said in a statement shared with Turkey’s state-run Anadolu News Agency.
The Old City, which is part of East Jerusalem that was captured by Israel in 1967 in what is known as the Six-Day War, has sites sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For more than a decade, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate has opposed Ateret Cohanim’s claims that it legally purchased the church’s properties.
The Ateret Cohanim group says on its website that it “works to redeem property once held by Jews in Israel’s capital as well as re-establishing Jewish neighborhoods in the heart of the Old City and its surrounding areas.”
Ateret Cohanim contends it purchased three buildings from the church in an alleged secret deal in 2004 during the time of Patriarch Irineos, who was later dismissed after being accused of selling the property without the church’s permission.
The news of 2004 drew outrage in the Palestinian community that made up the majority of the patriarchate.
Last Wednesday, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate’s appeal against the takeover of Christian properties and called the church’s “harsh allegations” of misconduct in the original sale “not proven to be true” in earlier proceedings, according to AFP.
The EU said the ruling poses “a threat to the peaceful co-existence of all three monotheistic religions in Jerusalem, as well as to the established religious equilibrium.” The EU Mission called for maintaining the city’s “status quo” by preserving and respecting its character.
The church condemned the ruling as “unfair” and without “any legal logical basis,” calling Ateret Cohanim a “radical organization” that resorted to “crooked and illegal methods to acquire Christian real estate.”
“We are talking about a group of extremists that want to take the properties from the churches, want to change the character of the Old City and want to invade the Christian areas,” the church’s attorney, Asaad Mazawi, told AFP:
Members of Ateret Cohanim took over the Little Petra Hotel with the help of Israeli police in April.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch Beatitude Theophilos III held a press conference and called the takeover “a threat to the continued existence of a Christian Quarter in Jerusalem, and ultimately to peaceful coexistence of the communities of this city.”
“The Heads of Churches have repeatedly warned of the illegitimate actions of extremists, who have followed a pattern of intimidation and violence,” a statement issued by church leaders at the time reads.
“In occupying the Greek Orthodox Church’s property … Ateret Cohanim has committed criminal acts of break-in and trespass,” the Patriarchs and Heads of Local Churches in Jerusalem stated. “They act as if they are above the law, with no fear of consequences.”
“This issue is not about the individual properties, but about the whole character of Jerusalem, including the Christian Quarter,” the statement added. “The Little Petra Hotel stands on the pilgrim route for the millions of Christians who visit Jerusalem each year. It represents Christian heritage, and speaks of our very existence in this place.”
In January, Patriarch Theophilos III wrote in an op-ed in The Times (of London) that Israeli radical fringe groups were seeking to drive the Christian community out of the city.
“Our presence in Jerusalem is under threat,” he wrote.
“Our churches are threatened by Israeli radical fringe groups. At the hands of these Zionist extremists, the Christian community in Jerusalem is suffering greatly. Our brothers and sisters are the victims of hate crimes. Our churches are regularly desecrated and vandalized. Our clergy are subject to frequent intimidation.”
Theophilos claimed that local families who have lived in the area for generations “will be made to feel unwelcome in their own home” and “pilgrims who have longed to visit the birthplace of the Christian faith will have their experience diminished.”
“By working to exclude one community, the Christians, these radicals pose an existential threat not only to the Christian family but to Jerusalem itself, a point upheld by so many of our Jewish cohabitants of the Holy Land,” the patriarch wrote.
The World Council of Churches’ acting general secretary, the Rev. Ioan Sauca, issued a statement in support of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.
“Recognizing the gravity of the threat accelerating the already tragically steep decline in the Christian presence, the WCC strongly supports the church leaders’ call for an urgent dialogue with the political authorities of Israel, Palestine and Jordan with a view to addressing the challenges posed by radical groups and to protecting and supporting the Christian community,” Sauca said.