image of jerusalem 2018

God & Caesar in Conflict in Jerusalem!
If truth be told, I have never particularly liked the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. As an Armenian who hails originally from Jordan and who struggles constantly with his faith, I do agree with most Christians that this church is the site of the crucifixion, burial and Resurrection of Jesus (hence its name in Arabic is Kanīsat al-Qiyāmah or the Church of the Resurrection).

6 March   |   2018   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

But almost every time I have entered the church, it has come across to me as a dank, rowdy, disorderly and gloomy place where Christian denominations often lay bare their tantrums and divergences. What I have missed is the spirituality that I associate with houses of worship. In fact, during my legal stint as second-track negotiator in Jerusalem in the 1990’s, I often took friends or colleagues to other churches that had for me a more vibrant spiritual pulse.

However, despite my personal proclivities, I was one of those who was irate when the latest spat erupted between Israeli politicians and the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic and Franciscan Catholic custodians (keepers) of the Holy Sepulchre. And for those who missed out on this unseemly fight, it focused on two grievances by the Churches.

On the one hand, the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, was attempting to enforce a punitive and retroactive tax on church properties in the Holy City. The municipality claimed that the three Christian denominations collectively owed some 186 million shekels (or just under €43 million) in back taxes on properties not deemed places of worship. On the other hand, the Israeli Ministerial Committee for Legislation was seeking to advance the “Bill of Church Lands” which would have controversially given the Israeli government the power to confiscate church property that had been leased out in West Jerusalem.

In most European countries, such as in Germany with its Rhineland Model for instance, taxing churches is not unusual, and parishioners are allowed in return to make donations to their churches as gifts that would then be deducted from their income tax returns. So I am not against the principle per se were it not for some uneasy facts:

  • The counter-revolutionary forces across the MENA and Gulf regions have gained the upper hand at this stage. With untold amounts of monies, as well as brutal suppression, they have striven to put the lid back on those initial uprisings that initially sought the basic freedoms we in the West take for granted. However, the genie still remains outside the bottle, and it is not possible to impose a wholesale amnesia on the younger generations. The Arab Spring was a hasty misnomer, but the Arab Winter is an ephemeral misnomer.
  • The Palestinian conflict is now facing a political cul-de-sac. But a whole people cannot be robbed of their rights for self-determination by the oppressive practices of Israeli governments and the collusion of some Arab rulers or other global powers. 3 million Palestinians cannot be made willing refugees again, and the younger generations are even more conscious of their rights. Ahed Tamimi from Nabi Saleh is an example of resistance. The question is how much more pain has to be sustained before the dream becomes real.
  • Let me add that those fiscal issues between the Churches of Jerusalem and the State of Israel have been part of ongoing negotiations and agreements with the Holy See. So there was no need for the Mayor of Jerusalem to challenge the religious institutions in this peremptory manner and without adequate consultation.
  • Finally, one has to remember that matters relating to relations between Church and State are subject to a Status Quo agreement that goes back to Ottoman times. This firman or edict was first passed by the Ottoman Emperor Osman III in 1757, and it had been observed by British and Jordanian rule of Jerusalem as well as by Israel since 1967 To impose such hefty demands on them summarily at this stage makes me wonder whether this was so much a fiscal decision alone as whether it was a political one-upmanship between the Churches and Israeli authorities.

The relationship between the Churches of Jerusalem and the Israeli political and municipal authorities has almost always been fraught with tension. Whether in terms of vandalism or intimidation that is exercised against those institutions and their followers, or else in discriminatory practices, Christians - alongside Muslims - have often been pressured by the Israeli occupation since we are talking about Palestinians struggling against a cruel occupation.

Mind you, Israel has found it difficult to accept that Christians in the Holy Land are as much against the occupation as their Muslim neighbours. This observation becomes more relevant when one adds that a large number of US Evangelical Christians are politically bound to Israel and often are at loggerheads with Arab Christians. After all, it was only last January that the Christian church leaders in Jerusalem bluntly refused to meet with US Vice President Mike Pence when he expressed an interest to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

In addition to the usual ructions between local Christians (and Muslims) on the one hand and Israel on the other, I wonder if these sudden measures were also an attempt by the Mayor of Jerusalem to show some political oomph within his own political party at a time when PM Benyamin Netanyahu is beleaguered and under serious investigation by the police. Was this an attempt to throw his name into the political arena?

Equally peculiar that Christian leaders across the Arab World were in their majority quite reticent in their solidarity with their counterparts in the Holy Land. Once again, the support came much more readily from Christian churches and organisations in Western Europe and the USA. I wonder if this was in part due to the fact that those church leaders in the Arab World are afraid to talk in case they anger their political masters who are in bed with Israel.

However, what is much more meaningful for me than those two Israeli rapacious measures is the fact that they were suspended by Israel following the loud public protests by the local churches. After all, Easter is at our doorsteps and Israel surely did not wish to end up with large numbers of frustrated pilgrims who could not visit this church.

This is a rare example of capitulation by Israeli authorities who consider themselves well nigh invincible. It further shows how Palestinians can initiate a powerful non-violent resistance that coerces Israel to stand down. It happened when Muslims defied in large numbers the Israeli decision to install metal detectors and cameras in the compound of the Dome of the Rock in July 2017. And it has now happened again with Christian protests.

Jerusalem is a holy city that is precious to all three Abrahamic faiths. So in this conflict between God and Caesar, Palestinians can draw strength from the biblical story where the young David defeated the biblical warrior Goliath of Gath. If it were done then in admittedly different circumstances, surely it can also be done today?

This article, with slight edits, appeared earlier as an Opinion on the web-pages of Al-Jazeera (English) and was carried also by the Istanbul-based hyetert news website.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2018   |   6 March


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