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West Bank priests stress nonviolence amid Israeli occupation protests

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Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM — With tensions still high in the Old City following weeks of violence, Father Firas Aridah completed his work at the Latin Patriarchate early so he could leave Jerusalem for his West Bank parish before any possible violence began.

“There were many (Israeli) police and soldiers, closing many roads,” Father Aridah said in a phone interview once he was back in Jifna’s St. Joseph Parish July 28.

Palestinians react as a stun grenade explodes in a street in Jerusalem's Old City July 27. (CNS photo/Amir Cohen, Reuters)

Palestinians react as a stun grenade explodes in a street in Jerusalem’s Old City July 27. (CNS photo/Amir Cohen, Reuters)

Friday afternoon prayer in Muslim tradition is considered especially significant and is required of all Muslim men. Often during volatile periods, prayers at the contested Al-Aqsa Mosque compound have been followed by demonstrations. Sometimes the tensions spread to other sections of Jerusalem, or even to the West Bank.

For Father Aridah and other parish priests in the West Bank, the challenge is to emphasize the Christian tradition of nonviolence while supporting their young parishioners’ desire to oppose the Israeli occupation.

Father Aridah said he counsels young people not to throw stones at the young Israeli soldiers who sometimes come near their village on patrols or in search of men wanted by the army.

“The problem is with the (Israeli) government, not with the soldiers,” he said. “Violence is not acceptable from either side. With this conflict, Israel is losing its image as a democratic state. I tell the young men that we are not with this violence. If we do not accept for Israel to behave this way, then how can we accept it from our side? Wherever God is represented in our life, we should have no violence.”

If word that someone might be considering taking part in a violent demonstration reaches him, the priest makes a beeline to that home for a conversation. The way to best serve their society, he advises them, is to get an education, to bring a new vision to Palestinian life.

“I don’t want to see blood in my parish,” Father Aridah said. “If we want to see (real) results, I tell (the young people) to be educated. I (tell them) to serve your people well, do well in the university, then go get a job in society and tell the world (about our situation), but do nothing with violence. If we want to resist, we resist with education.”

As he prepared to leave for a new parish in northern Israel, Father Aktham Hijazin of the Annunciation Parish in Beit Jala spent his last Sunday with his parish saying his good-byes. He said the majority of Palestinians, including his parishioners, are proponents of nonviolent opposition to the Israeli occupation. His parishioners did not take part in the clashes in neighboring Bethlehem, he said.

Following the tenets of their Catholic faith, he said, “They are not interested to take part in any violent act.”

In Ramallah, West Bank, Father Ibrahim Shomali noted that though he did not take part, members of his parish as well as clergy from the Melkite and Greek Orthodox churches did participate in peaceful demonstrations in Ramallah, away from the flashpoints with Israeli soldiers.

He said he has made it clear to his parishioners that, even while under Israeli occupation, violent confrontation is not acceptable. Even if Israel settlers attack Palestinian farmers and villagers, violence is not justified, he added.

As Christians, he said, people must respect all holy places and respect the holiness of Al-Aqsa for Muslims.

“We resist with our prayers and with our Bible and with respect of the human person,” Father Shomali said. “If you can love your enemy, you can have more power over them and get stronger to ask for your rights.”

The Al-Aqsa mosque compound has been the focal point of Palestinian-Israel confrontation for decades. To Muslims it is Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary where, according to tradition, the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. To Jews it is holy as the Temple Mount, where, according to Jewish tradition, the two biblical temples stood. In the Gospels, this is where Jesus lashed out against the money-changers when he came to Jerusalem on Passover.

On July 14 outside one of the compound gates, two Israeli policemen were murdered by three men from an Israeli Arab town. The men had smuggled guns into the compound; Israeli police shot and killed them. Israel responded by erecting metal detectors and other security measures outside the compound, sparking protests, some violent, by Muslims.

A week later, a Palestinian snuck into the Israeli settlement of Halamish and killed three members of an Israeli family during their Shabbat dinner. An off-duty soldier shot and injured the attacker.

Israel eventually removed the metal detectors at the Al-Aqsa compound and replaced cameras with “smart cameras” that have face recognition capabilities and can detect weapons.

“The place is holy for the three religions, Muslims, Christians and Jews, so we should (all) be able to raise our praise to God,” said a Catholic priest, who asked not to be named. “This may be possible when a peace agreement is reached.”

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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.”

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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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Franciscan ‘custos’ named apostolic administrator of Jerusalem

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem and appointed Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, former “custos” of the Holy Land, as the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The resignation and appointment were announced June 24 by the Vatican.

Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem and appointed Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, former "custos" of the Holy Land, as apostolic administrator of the patriarchate. Father Pizzaballa is pictured in a 2011 photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem and appointed Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, former “custos” of the Holy Land, as apostolic administrator of the patriarchate. Father Pizzaballa is pictured in a 2011 photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Patriarch Twal, who has served as head of the Latin Patriarchate since 2008, stepped down for reasons of age. In October 2015, he turned 75, the age at which bishops are required by canon law to turn in their resignations to the pope.

Father Pizzaballa served as “custos” of the Holy Land for 12 years. The “custos” is the provincial minister of the Franciscans in almost all of the Middle East, with jurisdiction over territory extending through Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Cyprus and Rhodes, and at their monastery in Cairo.

He will serve as apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem until the appointment of a new patriarch and he will be elevated to the dignity of archbishop, the Vatican said. His ordination as a bishop will be in September.

In a statement released shortly after the Vatican’s announcement, the Latin Patriarchate thanked Patriarch Twal and welcomed Father Pizzaballa “with best wishes in his new mission.”

“The entire diocese joins in prayer for the intentions of the patriarch emeritus and the new apostolic administrator,” the statement said.

 

Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.

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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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Villanova, 76ers coaches promote peace through basketball in Holy Land

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JERUSALEM — Jerusalem is hot, especially in the gym of the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School for Jewish Arab Education. Jerusalem is tense, too, with jolting violence this summer over dismantled settlement homes, gay rights and a brutal attack on a Palestinian family.

But those events did not keep Villanova University basketball Coach Jay Wright and Philadelphia 76ers Coach Brett Brown from heading to Israel to engage in peacemaking efforts with youth from PeacePlayers International, an organization that uses basketball to foster team play and tolerance in areas of conflict. Wright also brought his basketball-playing family with him.

The coaches found their way to Israel via Arn Tellem, president of the Detroit Pistons, who is on the board of PeacePlayers International. Read more »

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Pope condemns attack on Jerusalem synagogue that killed four worshippers, policeman

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis condemned the “unacceptable episodes of violence” in Jerusalem, episodes that “do not spare even places of worship,” after an attack in a synagogue left four worshippers, a policeman and the two attackers dead.

At the end of his general audience Nov. 19, the day after the attack on the synagogue, Pope Francis said he was following “with concern the alarming increase of tensions in Jerusalem and other areas of the Holy Land.”

Jewish worshippers covered in prayer shawls pray Nov. 19 at a synagogue in Jerusalem where two Palestinian militants killed four rabbis and a policeman. Pope Francis condemned the “unacceptable episodes of violence” in Jerusalem, episodes that “do not spare even places of worship.”  (CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

Jewish worshippers covered in prayer shawls pray Nov. 19 at a synagogue in Jerusalem where two Palestinian militants killed four rabbis and a policeman. Pope Francis condemned the “unacceptable episodes of violence” in Jerusalem, episodes that “do not spare even places of worship.” (CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

The pope offered prayers for the victims of the attack carried out by two Palestinian cousins from East Jerusalem and for all those suffering the consequences of the attack.

“From the depths of my heart,” he said, “I appeal to those involved to put an end to the spiral of hatred and violence and make courageous decisions in favor of reconciliation and peace.”

“Making peace is difficult,” he said, “but living without peace is a torment.”

Shortly after the early morning synagogue attack, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem called for an end to all violence in the Holy Land.

“We are praying and waiting. We are sad,” said Patriarch Twal. “We must, all people of responsibility, politicians and religious leaders, do our best in our positions to condemn this violence and avoid as much as possible the causes which lead other people to violence.”

The attack occurred in the Har Nof neighborhood of West Jerusalem, which is popular with the Anglo-Orthodox Jewish community. Three of the dead worshippers had dual Israeli-American citizenship; one had Israeli-British citizenship.

The two perpetrators of the attacks were killed at the scene by Israeli police.

“Violence leads to more violence,” Patriarch Twal told Catholic News Service. He said he sent condolences to the families of all the victims of the recent wave of violence that has rocked Jerusalem as Israel moves toward expanding Jewish settlements in the area and Palestinians fear a Jewish presence on the shared holy site of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in Jerusalem’s Old City.

According to a tenuous and contested status quo agreement, Jews are allowed to visit the site where, according to Jewish tradition, the Biblical Jewish temple stood and, but they are not allowed to pray there. According to Muslim tradition, it is the site where Muhammad ascended into heaven.

A day prior to the synagogue attack, a Palestinian bus driver who worked for an Israeli cooperative was found hanged in his bus at the terminal. Israeli police called the death a suicide after a medical investigation, but the man’s family and the Palestinian media maintain that it was a lynching. Some have said the synagogue killings were in retaliation for his death.

“You can’t occupy and then think people (will be quiet),” Patriarch Twal said, referring to Israel occupation of Palestinian lands. “We are against any kind of violence either from a state group or private groups.”

“We are in a very bad situation and condemn the violence and assure the families who have lost loved ones of our prayers,” he added. “It is very sad.”

The Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land expressed “shock and horror” at the attack, calling it “horrendous.”

“Such murderous deeds, especially in a house of worship, are the ultimate abuse of religion,” said a statement from the council, which represents Israel’s chief rabbinate, the Palestinian Authority Shariah courts, and local Christian leaders. “We call on all religious political and civic leaders to do their utmost to prevent the local political conflict from being turned into a religious war, the consequences of which will be disastrous for all.”

The Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, World Council of Churches general secretary, expressed concern and sadness over the attack.

“There is a particular horror in any such attack which takes place at a place of worship. I condemn this violence unequivocally, as I do all violence between the peoples and communities of this region which has seen so much bloodshed in the name of religion,” he said. “Violence, collective punishments and communal attacks can only further damage the prospects of peace and justice for all.’

Israelis were shocked by the attack on the worshippers, killed as they took part in the daily morning prayers at the popular neighborhood synagogue.

In past weeks, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif has been sight of bloody confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinians, and synagogues and mosques have been vandalized.

Over recent weeks, several Palestinians have been killed and injured in demonstrations in East Jerusalem, and several Israelis been killed and injured in attacks by Palestinians in the Jerusalem area and Tel Aviv.

Patriarch Twal said Jerusalem is a city of peace, not violence.

He said the recent attacks have shown that the walls built as a security barrier to separate the West Bank do not protect anyone from violence as long as there is occupation and injustice.

“There is no protection with walls. Only dignity and justice for all (will bring security,)” he said. “All this violence took place within the walls. We need more justice and comprehension.”

Patriarch Twal noted that Christians in the Holy Land were preparing to celebrate Christmas and expressed concern that pilgrims would be afraid to come because of the violence.

‘We hope that by Christmastime there will be no more revenge and no more killings,” he said. He asked for prayers for the peace of Jerusalem, the Holy Land and all its inhabitants, so Jerusalem could return to its vocation as the city of peace.

Contributing to this story was Judith Sudilovsky in Jerusalem.

 

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