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Christian leaders to reopen Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher

February 27th, 2018 Posted in International News Tags: ,


Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — Christian leaders in the Holy Land announced they would reopen the Church of the Holy Sepulcher Feb. 28 after the Israeli government has set up a negotiating team to resolve a municipal dispute over property taxes.

The heads of Christian churches expressed “our gratitude to all those who have worked tirelessly to uphold the Christian presence in Jerusalem and to defend the Status Quo,” the 19th-century agreement that governs Jerusalem’s holy places.

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


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


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


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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Fifty years later, another pope and patriarch meet in Jerusalem


By Francis X. Rocca

Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — Half a century after a historic encounter between their predecessors, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew met in the same place to seek inspiration for Christian unity at the site of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople embrace during an ecumenical celebration in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem May 25. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“We need to believe that, just as the stone before the tomb was cast aside, so, too, every obstacle to our full communion will also be removed,” the pope said May 25 during a prayer service at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

“Every time we put behind us our longstanding prejudices and find the courage to build new fraternal relationships, we confess that Christ is truly risen,” the pope said, his voice hoarse and expression fatigued after two full days of public appearances in the Holy Land.

The pope also spoke of an “ecumenism of suffering, an ecumenism of blood,” which brings Christians closer through the common experience of persecution. When others kill Christians, he noted, they do not ask if they are Catholic or Orthodox.

Patriarch Bartholomew said Jesus’ tomb sends the message that “history cannot be programmed; that the ultimate word in history does not belong to man, but to God. In vain did the guards of secular power watch over this tomb. In vain did they place a very large stone against the door of the tomb, so that none could roll it away.”

The patriarch said the tomb also encourages Christians to “love the other, the different other, the followers of other faiths and other confessions.”

Their prayer service marked the 50th anniversary of an encounter in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. The earlier meeting, which led both churches to lift the mutual excommunications that started the East-West schism in 1054, opened the modern period of ecumenical dialogue.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew reached the square in front of the church a few minutes after 8 p.m. They arrived from opposite sides and met in the center, where they embraced before entering the church.

Inside, they participated in common prayer with representatives of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic churches, which share custody of the building. The event was extraordinary because members of the three communities usually observe a strict separation when praying inside the church. Representatives of other churches present in the Holy Land — including Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian, Anglican and Lutheran archbishops — also participated in the ecumenical celebration.

At the beginning of the service, which featured songs and readings in Greek and Latin, the pope and the patriarch knelt and prayed together before the stone of unction, a red limestone slab traditionally believed to be the surface on which Jesus’ dead body was anointed for burial after the crucifixion.

Both Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis gave short addresses, the former speaking in English and the latter in Italian.

Later, the pope and patriarch entered the aedicule, a small wood building containing Jesus’ tomb. They knelt before it and kissed it. After exiting they climbed a stairway to Mount Calvary to light candles at the site of the crucifixion.

Earlier in the evening, the pope and patriarch met privately at the apostolic delegation, the Vatican’s representative office in Jerusalem, where the pope was to spend the second and final night of his visit to the Holy Land.

The two leaders spent more than an hour together, more than twice as long as scheduled. They emerged with a signed common declaration calling for “communion in legitimate diversity” between their churches.

“We look forward in eager anticipation to the day in which we will finally partake together in the eucharistic banquet,” the pope and patriarch wrote, calling for continuing “fraternal encounter and true dialogue” to “lead us into all truth.”

Their declaration also called for common efforts in the “service of humanity, especially in defending the dignity of the human person at every stage of life and the sanctity of family based on marriage, in promoting peace and the common good” by struggling against “hunger, poverty, illiteracy (and) the inequitable distribution of resources.”

The leaders also stressed the need to protect the natural environment and defend religious liberty, especially for embattled Christian minorities in the Middle East.

The Vatican had emphasized that the pope’s meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew was the main reason for his densely packed, three-day visit to the Holy Land. The two leaders were scheduled to meet a total of four times during the visit, whose official logo was an icon of the apostles Peter and Andrew, patron saints of the churches of Rome and Constantinople, joined in a fraternal embrace.

The text of the common declaration can be found at http://www.news.va/en/news/common-declaration-signed-by-pope-francis-and-the.


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