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Jerusalem’s Christian leaders concerned with increased tension in Old City

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — The heads of Jerusalem’s Christian churches expressed “serious concern” over an escalation in tensions in Jerusalem’s Old City as hostilities remained high following the mid-July shooting deaths of two Israeli policemen and three gunmen on the Al-Aqsa mosque compound.

Palestinian worshipers protest in Jerusalem July 20 because they refuse to pass through new security measures imposed at the entrance to the Al-Aqsa compound. (CNS photo/Abir Sultan, EPA)

Palestinian worshipers protest in Jerusalem July 20 because they refuse to pass through new security measures imposed at the entrance to the Al-Aqsa compound. (CNS photo/Abir Sultan, EPA)

The church leaders said they were worried that any change to the status quo of the site could “easily lead to serious and unpredictable consequences.”

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land, were among the signatories of the July 19 statement.

Police believe the gunmen, three cousins, Arab citizens of Israel who were killed by Israel police, stashed their weapons inside the compound of the holy site for use in the July 14 attack.

“We express … our grief for the loss of human life and strongly condemn any act of violence,” the Christian leaders said. “We are worried about any change to the historical situation in Al-Aqsa Mosque (Haram ash-Sharif) and its courtyard, and in the holy city of Jerusalem. … We value the continued custody of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan on Al-Aqsa mosque and the holy places in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, which guarantees the right for all Muslims to free access and worship to Al-Aqsa according to the prevailing status quo.”

Israel, which maintains control to access the site and has set up metal detectors at the entrance of the compound, repeatedly has said it has no intentions of changing the status quo in the area. The Jordanian Waqf Islamic trust administers the inside of the compound. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit the site but cannot pray there.

The compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, is also considered a Jewish holy site as the historical location of the two Jewish biblical temples.

Today, Jews pray at the Western Wall, a retaining wall of the platform, below the compound. Visitors to the Western Wall plaza must go through metal detectors to enter the site.

Jerusalem Muslim leaders have called on worshippers not to go through the metal detectors, and Muslims have been converging outside the Old City’s Lion’s Gate for prayers instead.

“We renew our call that the historical status quo governing these sites be fully respected, for the sake of peace and reconciliation to the whole community, and we pray for a just and lasting peace in the whole region and all its people,” the Jerusalem church leaders said.

On July 14, the same day as the attack, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned the incident as a “desecration.” The bishops said they mourned for those killed and deplored “the heightened tensions that such an attack can span.” They noted that the “path to peace, for which both Israelis and Palestinians yearn, cannot be paved with violence.”

Trump arrives in Holy Land, visits Church of the Holy Sepulcher — updated

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — Following his official welcome to Jerusalem by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, U.S. President Donald Trump began his two-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories with a private visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Western Wall.

Details of the visits to the holy sites had been a carefully guarded secret until the last moment, but from early May 22 the alleyways of the Old City were closed to both residents and tourists, and the main thoroughfares leading to the Old City were closed off to all traffic.

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump speak to Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem after visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher May 22. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump speak to Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem after visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher May 22. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

Under tight security and led by the traditional kawas honor guard announcing the way with the thumping of their ornamental staffs, the president made his way by foot through the Old City’s alleyways to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. He and first lady Melania Trump were welcomed at the entrance of the church courtyard by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Archbishop Theophilos III; Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land; and Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian. The president spoke briefly to the religious leaders and stopped at the entrance of the church for a group photograph after also speaking to a few other religious.

Trump, who also was accompanied into the church by his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, spent about 30 minutes in the church, which encompasses the area where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was crucified, buried and later rose from the dead. At the entrance of the church is the stone of unction, where tradition holds that Jesus’ body was laid out and washed after his crucifixion. Inside the central rotunda is the newly renovated Edicule, where Jesus was buried.

The delegation then walked the short distance to the Western Wall plaza, where Trump was greeted by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall. Wearing the traditional Jewish kippa or skullcap, Trump walked alone to the wall, where he placed his hands on the stones for several minutes. He then placed a note with a prayer into a crack in the wall, a Jewish tradition. Melania and Ivanka Trump visited the women’s section of the wall separately, and the first lady spent a few minutes silently in front of the wall, touching it with her hand.

Trump is the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall in the contested Old City of Jerusalem. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital city.

The Western Wall, considered the holiest site for Judaism today as a remnant of the retaining wall of the Biblical Jewish Temple, also surrounds the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound, where the Jewish temple once stood and the location of Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site.

Avoiding any symbolic controversy involving the issue of the city’s sovereignty, the Trump administration insisted the visit to the sites be private, vexing Israel by Trump’s refusal to be accompanied by Israeli political leaders to the Western Wall.

Meanwhile, Palestinians said Israel had not allowed a Greek Orthodox Scout marching band to accompany the delegation to Church of the Holy Sepulcher as planned because of the Palestinian flags on their uniform. A spokesman from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied any Israeli involvement in the matter, suggesting that it might have been a U.S. security issue.

In a visit that encompasses both political and religious symbolism, Trump spent two days in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with King Salman and other Muslim leaders. He was scheduled to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas May 23 in Bethlehem, West Bank, and was expected to urge the Palestinian leader to take productive steps toward peace.

According to media reports, he did not plan to visit Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity because of an exhibit there supporting hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

In statements upon his arrival in Israel, Trump spoke warmly about the U.S.-Israeli bond and his deep sense of admiration for the country. He also spoke of the need to unite against “the scourge of violence.”

“We have the rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and to its people by defeating terrorism,” Trump said at the welcoming ceremony upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, where he was greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. “But we can only get there by working together. We love Israel. We respect Israel and I send your people the warmest greeting from your friend and ally, from all people in the USA, we are with you.”

The next leg of his first overseas trip as president is slated to include a visit to the Vatican as well as to Brussels.

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Catholic leaders urge Israel to meet Palestinian hunger strikers’ demands

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — Catholic leaders in the Holy Land urged Israel to concede to demands of Palestinian political prisoners on a hunger strike since April 17.

The prisoners are seeking an improvement in their prison conditions and an end to administrative detention, which allows Israel to hold prisoners almost indefinitely without having to charge them with a crime.

A Palestinian protester in Beita, West Bank, moves a burning tire during clashes with Israeli troops April 28. Catholic leaders in the Holy Land urged Israel to concede to demands of Palestinian political prisoners on a hunger strike since April 17. (CNS photo/Mohamad Torokman, Reuters)

A Palestinian protester in Beita, West Bank, moves a burning tire during clashes with Israeli troops April 28. Catholic leaders in the Holy Land urged Israel to concede to demands of Palestinian political prisoners on a hunger strike since April 17. (CNS photo/Mohamad Torokman, Reuters)

The Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land said the prisoners are asking that their human rights and dignity be respected according to international law and the Geneva Convention.

“We urge the Israeli authorities to hear the cry of the prisoners, to respect their human dignity, and to open a new door toward the making of peace,” the bishops said in a statement released April 29. “The aim of this desperate act is to shed light, both locally and internationally, on the inhuman conditions in which they are detained by the Israeli authorities.”

The bishops affirmed the need to apply international law to the conditions of incarceration of political prisoners and condemned “the use of detention without trial, all forms of collective punishment, as well as the use of duress and torture for whatever reason.”

“Furthermore, we can never forget that every prisoner is a human being and his God-given dignity must be respected,” said the bishops.

Freeing prisoners will be a “sign of a new vision” which could mark a new beginning for Israelis and Palestinians, they said.

“As Christians, we are sent to work for the liberation of every human being, and for the establishment of a human society in which there is equality for all, Israelis and Palestinians,” they said.

According to reports in the Israeli press, Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said 300 of the hunger strikers have agreed to start taking food, although none of their demands has been met. Palestinians maintain the 1,500 prisoners are continuing their water-and-salt only fast.

The political prisoners are demanding improved visitation rights for family members, better access to phone calls and medical care. Some 6,500 Palestinian prisoners are held in Israeli jails for alleged offenses ranging from murder to throwing stones.

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Jerusalem’s Latin patriarchate condemns Israeli law allowing seizure of Palestinian lands

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem warned of “serious consequences” from a new law that allows the government to seize private Palestinian lands where unauthorized Israeli settlements have been built.

Heavy equipment is seen as workers clear an area for the construction of a new home Feb. 7 in the Israeli settlement of Shilo, West Bank. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem warned of "serious consequences" from a new law that allows the government to seize private Palestinian lands where unauthorized Israeli settlements have been built. (CNS photo/Jim Hollander, EPA)

Heavy equipment is seen as workers clear an area for the construction of a new home Feb. 7 in the Israeli settlement of Shilo, West Bank. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem warned of “serious consequences” from a new law that allows the government to seize private Palestinian lands where unauthorized Israeli settlements have been built. (CNS photo/Jim Hollander, EPA)

“Such a law undermines the two-state solution, further eliminating hopes of peace,” the patriarchate said in a Feb. 8 statement. “The Latin Patriarchate strongly condemns this unjust and unilateral law that allows the de facto annexation of Palestinian private land for the benefit of Israeli settlements.”

“Strongly concerned about the future of peace and justice in the Holy Land, the Latin Patriarchate calls on leaders to take decisive decisions in favor of peace, justice and dignity for all,” the statement said.

The Israeli Knesset passed the law Feb. 6. It will affect settlements or outposts built in good faith or on instructions of the government and will deem those lands as government property.

The legislation was quickly passed in the wake of the evacuation of the illegal outpost of Amona in the West Bank. The Feb. 1-2 evacuation took two days and was first ordered by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2014, but repeatedly had been pushed back because of legal appeals, until a final deadline of Feb. 8 was set in December.

The outpost consisted of mobile homes and log cabins and was built on privately owned Palestinian land. Some settlers had lived on the land for 20 years. The outpost’s buildings were either removed whole or demolished.

It is unclear whether the Palestinian owners will be permitted to return to farm there because the land abuts another Jewish settlement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to found a new settlement for the Amona evacuees on nearby land.

The Ha’aretz newspaper reported that a group of Palestinian civil and human rights organizations filed an appeal against the new law with the Supreme Court.

U.S. and European church leaders have spoken out against the settlements.

The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace told U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the settlements were an obstacle to peace.

“Settlement expansion on occupied Palestinian lands undermines a two-state solution, destroying the homes and the livelihoods of Palestinians as well as the long-term security and future of Israelis,” Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, New Mexico, wrote Feb. 1.

Bishop Cantu also reminded Tillerson that 2017 marked 50 years of “a crippling occupation” by Israel of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Bishops from the U.S., Canada and Europe who participated in the Holy Land Coordination Jan. 14-19 said the half-century of occupation “demands action” and expressed opposition to settlement construction.

“This is a scandal to which we must never become accustomed,” said the group of 12 prelates, including Bishop Cantu, after their visit.

“This de facto annexation of land not only undermines the rights of Palestinians in areas such as Hebron and East Jerusalem but, as the U.N. recently recognized, also imperils the chance of peace,” the statement said.

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Catholic leaders in Holy Land pray for those hit by wildfires

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — Catholic leaders in the Holy Land expressed solidarity with those affected by regional wildfires, which continued to burn after five days.

“We thank God for the fact that the majority of human injuries were light; we express our solidarity with those who suffer from physical or material damage,” they said in a Nov. 25 statement.

A plane drops fire retardant during a wildfire near Nataf, Israel, Nov. 26. (CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

A plane drops fire retardant during a wildfire near Nataf, Israel, Nov. 26. (CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

“Our country needs the fire of love which unites people, expands hearts and thoughts and enables a safe life full of faith, justice and love,” they said.

By Nov. 28 security officials said most fires were under control; of the 90 fires that broke out throughout Israel and the West Bank, 40 were suspected arson, they said, adding they believe the outbreak of the initial fires was due to a combination of negligence, accidents and dry, windy weather after a two-month drought.

Local mosques and Christian institutions made themselves available for those evacuees in need of a place to stay, though the majority of the people stayed with family and friends or in hotels.

The fires broke out Nov. 22 and spread across the countryside, damaging hundreds of properties and forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, 60,000 of those in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Haifa, Israel’s third -largest city. Firefighters also battled flames in several Arab and Druze villages, including a village outside of Nazareth, and several communities outside of Jerusalem, including the Neve Shalom community, where Jews and Arabs live together.

Haifa is home to a large population of Christian residents who make up 14 percent of the city’s inhabitants. The numerous brush fires in the city did not affect the neighborhoods where the majority of Christians and Christian institutions are located.

At the same time in a sign of rare regional cooperation with its Arab neighbors, Israel received assistance in form of personnel and equipment from Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority in addition to other countries, including the United States, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Italy and Russia.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to thank him for his assistance, and the Israeli press reported that Jewish settlers from Halamish, one of the hardest-hit communities, came out to thank the Palestinian firefighters who had helped battle the flames.

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Some West Bank Christians don’t get Easter permits to enter Jerusalem

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Catholic News Service

BEIT JALLA, West Bank — Nicola Sansour’s voice had a tinge of sadness as he recounted how his family planned to celebrate Easter this year. They planned to attend Holy Week services at Beit Jalla’s Annunciation Parish, purchase new clothes for the three small children, decorate eggs and attend the parish Easter egg hunt. His wife, Nivine, 34, would gather with his mother and sisters to make the traditional stuffed semolina “mamoul” Easter cookies.

Nicola Sansour and his wife, Nivine, pose with two of their children, Elia, 2, and Rivana, 5, at their home in Beit Jalla, West Bank, March 24. Nivine Sansour is holding her permit from the Israelis to travel to Jerusalem for Holy Week, but Nicola Sansour did not receive Israeli permission to travel to Jerusalem. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

Nicola Sansour and his wife, Nivine, pose with two of their children, Elia, 2, and Rivana, 5, at their home in Beit Jalla, West Bank, March 24. Nivine Sansour is holding her permit from the Israelis to travel to Jerusalem for Holy Week, but Nicola Sansour did not receive Israeli permission to travel to Jerusalem. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill)

But this would be another year in which he and his family would not be able to celebrate the holiday with a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a mere three miles from his home.

Christian Palestinians need a special Israeli entry permit to enter Jerusalem for the holiday, and Nivine Sansour received the entry permit, but her husband did not.

As a university student during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, Nicola Sansour took part in anti-Israeli demonstrations and was stopped by Israeli soldiers but never arrested. Perhaps, he said, that may be the black spot on his record that prevents him from being giving the permit. But 20 years have passed since then; he has received a university degree and become a teacher.

He has sent written appeals to the Israeli Civil Administration but has not received a response as to why they will not issue him a permit.

“It is important for us as Christians here to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on these very holy days. And I can’t go,” he said. “There is only one checkpoint I have to cross. I feel like I am in a big jail. Many times I just sit, and think that they are taking something away from me. “

“I am a peaceful person. They never told me (why I can’t get a permit),” he added.

“We need to be able to go to Jerusalem every day,” said Nivine Sansour. “But here we are in a prison, and only on the holidays are we free.”

Of the 350 families in their parish, some 30 families are in the same situation as they are, Nicola Sansour noted, with the fathers being denied the permit. In addition, 10 unmarried men also did not receive permits. His brother was among those denied a permit.

Yusef Daher, executive secretary of the Jerusalem Interchurch Center, earlier said there were many similar cases of some members of Christian families not receiving permits throughout the West Bank, but the exact numbers would not be known until the end of the holiday season.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem website said 847 of the 890 Christian Gazans who had requested permits for the holiday received them, for some, 95 percent of the requests.

“The most impressive thing was that the majority of young Christians got the permit. Some of them didn’t leave Gaza since eight years. We praise the Lord for this grace,” Father Mario de Silva, parish priest, was quoted as saying.

Israel maintains that the system of permits and checkpoints, including the separation barrier that surrounds Bethlehem and the adjacent villages of Beit Jalla and Beit Sahour, are needed for security reasons following the second intifada, when Palestinian suicide bombers from the West Bank carried out deadly attacks in Israeli cities, many of them in Jerusalem which borders Bethlehem.

According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, some 34 Israelis have been killed in terrorist attacks and 404 people injured, including four Palestinians, in the wave of violence that began last autumn. There have been 331 stabbings and other attacks and attempted attacks, according to their statistics. According to Defense for Children International, some 180 Palestinians were killed and more than 15,000 injured from September through February. Some of the injured and killed included attackers.

Last year, Nicola Sansour received a permit to travel to Jerusalem for Christmas, but Nivine Sansour’s permit got lost in the bureaucracy, and she could not go.

Nicola Sansour went alone and spent the day meandering around the streets of the Old City before he returned home. But it was lonely without his family, he said.

“When I go to Jerusalem, I feel the past. I feel what it was like in the past, and Jerusalem was a very, very big city,” said Nicola Sansour, who said he enjoys watching movies about Jerusalem’s Crusader history. “I would like to introduce my children to the church (of the Holy Sepulcher). I need them to feel the moment. To be able to take all my children to the church during Easter would be like a dream.”

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Christians chafe at Israeli restrictions for Holy Week, Easter in Jerusalem

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — Israeli restrictions on reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for Holy Week and Easter are part of the current Israeli government’s policy of making Jerusalem an exclusively Jewish city, said Yusef Daher, secretary-general of the Jerusalem Interchurch Center.

Faithful hold candles in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher in this April 19, 2014, file photo. (CNS photo/Oliver

Faithful hold candles in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher in this April 19, 2014, file photo. (CNS photo/Oliver Weiken/EPA)

Describing the network of Israeli police barriers that disrupt the flow and number of people able to reach the church for Good Friday services and the Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the Easter Vigil, Daher acknowledged that although the single entrance and exit to the church cause a potential hazard in case of a fire, there had been no problem in more than a century.

“This (restrictions) did not happen 10 years ago,” he said.

The Holy Fire ceremony involves the sharing of fire which, according to tradition, is brought forth miraculously from the tomb of Jesus by the Greek Orthodox and Armenian patriarchs. The first flames are passed from person to person by torches to bundles of candles. Eventually fire from the ceremony is sent to the various parishes of the Holy Land.

The ceremony has become a point of contention over the past 10 years between the Israeli police and local Christians.

Police say the single exit into a plaza makes the ceremony a high risk for visitors if a fire breaks out. In 1808, a fire severely damaged the dome of the Rotunda, and dozens of pilgrims were trampled to death, while in the mid-1800s a fire during the Holy Fire Ceremony reportedly also killed hundreds of pilgrims.

Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank and Gaza also need special permits in order to attend Holy Week and Easter ceremonies. Israel grants the permits at the last minute, and then often does not grant enough for everyone in the family to travel.

At a March 17 media briefing in Jerusalem’s Old City, Father Jamal Khader, rector of the Latin Patriarchate Seminary in Beit Jalla, West Bank, compared the restrictions to the celebration of Holy Week, which reminds Christians that Easter is coming.

“It (reminds us) that this can’t go on forever, there is an end; like with the Gospel there is a resurrection of light and of happiness,” he said.

The Status Quo, the 1852 agreement that preserved the division of ownership and responsibilities of various Christian holy sites, governs the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is shared by Catholics, Armenians and Greek, Ethiopian, Syriac and Coptic Orthodox.

While the need for more exits has been acknowledged, because of the desire to maintain the Status Quo, church officials have been unable to reach an agreement on how do so. Israel has said it will refrain from taking unilateral action in order to avoid provoking church protests.

“Yes, there are some security issues (in terms of fire exits),” Daher said. “Christians say that on a holy day God will not allow anything dangerous to happen. Secular people say that is nonsense and something has to be done, but closing the plaza is not (the solution).”

There are about 8,000 Christians living in Jerusalem, he said, and 50,000 Christians in the West Bank, with fewer than 2,000 in Gaza.

Over the past two years the Jewish Passover and Easter holiday have coincided and while the Jews entering the Old City have had complete freedom of movement, the movement of Christians celebrating Good Friday and the Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony have been restricted by the barriers, Daher said.

Meanwhile, he said, as Palm Sunday approaches, West Bank and Gaza Palestinians had not yet received their permits, which made it difficult for West Bank parishes to plan for the transportation to Jerusalem in order to participate in the traditional procession into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, following the path Jesus is thought to have taken, said Khader. He said he hoped permits would still be issued.

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Church leaders condemn vandalism at two Christian sites in Jerusalem

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — One week after a Christian cemetery was desecrated outside of Jerusalem, two more Christian sites were vandalized in the city.

Several anti-Christian slogans in Hebrew were discovered scrawled along the walls of the Benedictine Dormition Abbey monastery and the neighboring Greek Orthodox seminary, both located on Mount Zion next to the walls of the Old City.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem denounced the acts, which occurred Jan. 16 and 17, and repeated its belief in the importance of education toward tolerance while urging “follow-up” against those who incite intolerance against Christians.

“It is regrettable that such episodes of hatred come 50 years after ‘Nostra Aetate’ which initiated the interreligious dialogue of the Catholic Church with other religions, and turned a new page between Catholic Church and Judaism,” the patriarchate said in a statement Jan. 17. “We hope that the perpetrators will be arrested before proposed threats are carried out.”

For the Dormition Abbey, which is believed to have been built on the spot where Mary died, it was the fifth time the building was vandalized in recent years. A fire that broke out at the monastery in February was determined to be arson, and another arson incident took place just after Pope Francis’ visit to the monastery in May 2015. In 2012 and 2013, anti-Christian graffiti also appeared on abbey walls.

Authorities said the graffiti appeared to be written by different hands. Photographs depicting the graffiti showed statements such as “Christians go to hell,” “Death to the heathen Christians, the enemies of Israel” and “Let his (Jesus’) name and memory be obliterated.”

Benedictine Father Nikodemus Schnabel, spokesman for the abbey, said in a statement Jan. 17 that the red and black paint the Israeli police used to crudely and unsuccessfully try to cover up the graffiti did even more damage.

He noted that between the nights of Jan. 16 and 17, there had been a loud and aggressive gathering with music and chanting by “Jewish right-wing radicals” in their neighborhood near the contested Tomb of David site. He said such disruptive gatherings have taken place nearly every Saturday for three years.

The graffiti, he said, was found in an area of the monastery that is not monitored by security cameras despite what he said was promised by Israeli security authorities in the summer 2013 when several monastery cars were badly damaged and hate graffiti was discovered on monastery walls.

Mickey Rosenfeld, Israeli police spokesman, said he was unaware of such a promise about cameras and that police were investigating the most recent.

“We call on the security agencies to take appropriate measures against this hate crime and to work toward an improvement of the security situation on Mount Zion as it has been promised since summer 2013,” Father Schnabel said in his statement. “We are grateful for the overwhelming solidarity of all our friends in Israel. We as monks of Dormition Abbey will not cease to pray for reconciliation, justice and peace and also for the perpetrators of tonight, that hatred may disappear from their hearts.”

As they have done since 2011 after other incidents, Tag Meir, a faith-based organization working to end racism in Israel, sent a delegation of members in support of the monastery and seminary to denounce the attack.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the attacks during a weekly cabinet meeting, saying “there is no place for actions like these.”

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Violence flares again near Jerusalem’s holiest site

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — It has been painful to watch as violence has taken over Jerusalem once again, especially along the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus suffered in order to dissuade the use of violence, said Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali, Latin Patriarchate chancellor.

This violence goes against Jerusalem’s vocation as a holy city, which should be open to all people of faith, he said.

The gold-covered Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount complex is seen in this overview of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives Sept. 28. (CNS photo/Atef Safadi, EPA)

The gold-covered Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount complex is seen in this overview of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives Sept. 28. (CNS photo/Atef Safadi, EPA)

“We are shocked at what is happening,” Bishop Shomali told Catholic News Service in mid-October, after two weeks of unrest. “Violence does not help. We do not accept violence by any side.”

“We need the Lord’s help, He is the strong one in this situation,” added Bishop Shomali. “Our human efforts are not enough. We are for prayer.”

The fighting began following the late-September visit of Israeli Agricultural Minister Uri Ariel to one of the smallest contested spots on earth, a 36-acre compound known by Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif and by Jews as the Temple Mount. The Israeli minister’s visit stirred controversy after he used the opportunity to say a blessing for the Jewish new year.

Today, the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock stand on the spot, which is the third-holiest site for Muslims, who believe their prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven on a white stallion from this spot.

However, this site is also revered as the holiest site in Judaism, as the place where the two Jewish biblical temples stood. Here Jews believe Abraham was called upon by God to sacrifice his son Isaac; Muslims believe it was his son with Hagar, Ishmael, whom Ibrahim, as Abraham is known by Muslims, was asked to sacrifice.

Christians also believe the site to be holy as the place where Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus for the traditional Jewish ceremonial redemption of the firstborn and where Jesus returned numerous times to teach and preach.

A tenuous status quo agreement has been in place since 1967, when Israel gained control of the site from Jordan. The Islamic Waqf Authority, under the Jordanian king, controls the area, while Israeli security forces have control over the entrances to the compound. Neither Christian nor Jewish prayer is allowed on the site, though members of both faiths are permitted to visit during visiting hours reserved for non-Muslims. Jewish worshippers pray below at the Western Wall, which was a retaining wall for Herod’s Second Temple on the platform above.

The new wave of violence is taking place in the wake of rumors that Israel plans to change the established status quo and take over the compound, a charge the Israeli government denies.

The tensions have been fueled by continuing visits of ultra-religious Jews who attempt to pray at the site. A group of Palestinian women have been harassing Jews visiting the compound and were banned from entering it in September.

Holy Cross Father Russ McDougall, rector of Tantur Ecumenical Institute, noted that, unlike Christian theology, both Judaism and Islam share the concept of having sovereignty over a holy place. Still, he added, though the spark that ignited this round of violence was the conflict over the holy site, it is also the result of pent-up Palestinian frustration at both Israeli policies and Palestinian corruption.

“In a perfect world it would be wonderful if Jews, Christians and Muslims were to pray alongside one another,” said Father McDougall, quoting the book of Isaiah, in which God says his house will become a house of prayer for all people. “Unfortunately, we are not quite ready for that. It is a very fraught issue, while the vision is beautiful.”

Mustafa Abu Sway, associate professor of philosophy and Islamic studies at Al-Quds University and a lecturer on Islam at the Tantur institute, said Israel began changing the status quo after the second intifada by allowing large groups of Israeli settlers into the compound. He said that, before that time, there were no problems with visitors to the site.

“There are no prayers there, whether Christian or Jewish,” he said. For Muslims, the entire compound is considered to be the Al-Aqsa mosque, he said. “It is a mosque there for 1,400 years. When you go visit any place you are expected to behave according to the rules. I have the utmost respect for anyone as long as they recognize it is a mosque and will continue to be a mosque. There is no partnership, no sharing.

“Those Jews trying to pray at the compound do not really reflect the Israeli side in terms of their actions,” he added.

In Judaism, one of the basic definitions of holiness is that the holy not be touched or entered, noted Tomer Persico, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Orthodox rabbinical convention holds that Jews are not permitted to enter the Temple Mount compound.

Persico said the change came when, in 1996, a group of rabbis from the settlements, fearing that the Oslo peace accords would force Israel into relinquishing control over the site and over East Jerusalem, decreed Jews were allowed to ascend to the Temple Mount. Until then, he said, most Jews visiting the Temple Mount were secular and went as tourists. Those religious Jews wanting to go up to pray were seen as eccentric, he said.

“There is no doubt something major is happening,” he said of the current situation. “What is happening is a departure from tradition.”

“The Temple Mount has come to symbolize a national focal point in which the fate of the whole Jewish sovereignty of the Land of Israel is to be decided,” said Persico.

A parallel process has occurred for Muslims over the past 20 years, he said, and the compound has become first and foremost a symbol of nationalism, with the Al-Aqsa mosque coming to define Palestinian identity as Arabs.

Rabbi Ada Zavidov, who leads the Reform Har’el Congregation located in downtown Jerusalem, not far from the Old City, noted that the Temple Mount is Judaism’s only holy place.

“We know that human history is full of bloodshed perpetrated on the basis of religion. Our sages have a saying: ‘For the sake of peace,’” she said. “And if going up to the Temple Mount causes the opposite of peace, then we have to avoid this.”

While Israel has placed age limits and conditions on Muslims who can go to pray there, for perceived security concerns, Abu Sway, who has passed the age requirement, said there is still “something that catches you despite all the violence” when he goes to pray at Al-Aqsa. Walking the short distance to the mosque from his East Jerusalem neighborhood, where Israeli police have recently limited traffic, there are “minutes of very beautiful tranquility … it remains holy.”

“The occupation has not prevented people from going to Al-Aqsa. I believe people can coexist, but the power structure here, because of the occupation, is not healthy for us and not healthy for them,” Abu Sway said. “I hope there is a change of heart.”

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Unrest flares again in West Bank, Jerusalem

By

Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — Unrest flared in early October throughout the West Bank and Jerusalem, which has experienced tensions during September, largely over the status of the contested holy site of the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif.

A Palestinian throws a stone at Israeli troops during clashes in Bethlehem, West Bank, Oct. 5. (CNS photo/Mussa Qawasma, Reuters)

A Palestinian throws a stone at Israeli troops during clashes in Bethlehem, West Bank, Oct. 5. (CNS photo/Mussa Qawasma, Reuters)

Four Israelis were killed in the Old City of Jerusalem: a couple driving near their West Bank settlement with their four children in the back of their car, and two men, one of whom was on his way to pray at the Western Wall at the end of the Jewish Sabbath; his wife and toddler were injured in the attack. An ultra-Orthodox teenage boy was later stabbed near the same place.

Catholic News Service was unable to reach the Franciscan custos of the Holy Land or the Franciscan St. Saviour Parish in the Old City for comment.

Palestinians said the attacks were reprisals for the killing of a young Palestinian woman by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint near Hebron, West Bank, as well as the shooting of another Palestinian man on the eve of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, not far from where the couple was murdered. Media reported the 19-year-old Palestinian who carried out the Old City attack had posted on Facebook that Palestinians would not accept Israel’s attack on Al-Aqsa Mosque and declared the start of the third intifada, or Palestinian uprising.

The Israeli Defense Forces carried out raids in the West Bank against suspected terrorists, but the Israeli Haaretz newspaper quoted an IDF source as saying that Israel was reluctant to deal a collective punishment to the Palestinian public. The source counseled restraint in dealing with the situation in order not to set off a third intifada. One Palestinian was killed in rioting in Bethlehem Oct. 5.

Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, West Bank, Palestinian police continued their investigation into a Sept. 26 fire at the Maronite Monastery of St. Charbel and have arrested several suspects in what they said was a work-dispute-related incident. The fire caused extensive damage; the structure was undergoing renovations at the time, and there was no working electricity.

However, Deacon Sobhy Makhoul, Maronite Patriarchate chancellor, initially said the attack was sectarian in nature and called it arson by extremist Muslims in the predominantly Muslim neighborhood. Deacon Makhoul was out of the country in early October and could not be reached for comment.

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