The current situation in Jerusalem and at the Temple Mount is again a bit embattled this Summer . Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem left for New York and the United Nations to participate in a conference on “responsibility of the religious leaders in peace-building in the Middle-East”. The symposium gathers individuals and groups of different denominations, Jews, Muslims and Christians as well.
The Patriarch spoke in favor of a sort of equality and respectful co-existence between all the Holy Land jurisdictions in a spirit of freedom and quietness. This makes sense at the UN, in an international ingathering, especially at the United Nations Headquarters where real pending questions remain the general motto for international congresses and symposiums.
The riots and the fights that have been taking place now for more than two weeks on the Temple Mount were preceded in the past years by different conflicts, harsh attitudes raised by religious (or even secular/undetermined) Jews visiting the Holy Place that is normally forbidden to the Hebrew people by the Rabbis and the agreement passed with the Waqf in 1967.
The reason is that the Jews do not really know where the Holy of the Holies (Devir/דביר) and they should not walk on the concerned area. Secondly, the Holy Site has not been purified by the offering of the Red Heifer as provided by the rules governing Jewish purity in force. The present-day tendency is to consider that the Jews could be allowed to climb up the Har HaBayit/הר הבית (Temple Mount). Prayers took place recently as well as a wedding. It shows a kind of confusion or absence of awareness of what happened when the Second Temple was destroyed. Religious halachot (Laws) have to be considered adequately by all those who consider themselves as a part of the Jewish People because they were at the core of history and destiny and, by ricochet, they allowed the preservation of Jewishness in multi-faceted cultural and religious forms. This led to the existence of the State of Israel.
On the other hand, this year is quite special: it marks the 50th anniversary of the (re-)unification of Jerusalem. For the first time, the Jews and a Hebrew State exercize control (for the sake of all without distinction) over all the Holy Sites of both the Christian and Muslims communities. It also corresponds to the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration granted in 1917. This decision paved the way to the building of a Jewish Homeland in the Land of Israel and to the return of the exiled to Zion and Jerusalem according to Prophets (Tenach or Bible and Talmud).
This is furthermore combined this year with a recurrent issue: the sale of land and properties by the local Churches. At first glance, people think of the most important property and land owner in the Holy Land (also in Jordan and the Palestinian Territories), i.e. the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
The Patriarchate of Jerusalem is the most ancient Christian body in Jerusalem, born of the first “nascent Christian circle” located at Mount Zion that had not broken with the official Judaism of the time. The split happened later. The Gospels are known to be written in Greek that was in use long before the common era by the Jews and the Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire of the East and of the West. We do know that the Jews of Athens, Alexandria, Rome used to pray in Greek and Latin. In the East, in Jerusalem and in the Middle-East, Aramaic remained the usual lingua franca and the Aramaic version of the Gospels was written down rather lately in the second century CE. It constitutes a strong linguistic and cultural link with all the Semitic tongues, thus with Hebrew and Arabic. On the other hand, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem limited itself to Hellenistics and did not really support the Arabic-speaking communities nor the other Orthodox Christians who have been present in Jerusalem since the Early Church.
Due to a special affair that involved harsh anti-Semitic conflicts in Jerusalem in 1841, Queen Victoria, then Head of the Anglican Church, decided to assign a bishop in Jerusalem and sent there a Russian Hebrew Christian, born in Prussia, who had been ordained an Anglican priest in Norwich, Most Rvd Solomon Alexander Pollack. He is still remembered somehow at Saint George’s Episcopalian cathedral of Jerusalem.
When the Greek Orthodox saw that a new Anglican bishop had been sent to the Holy Land, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem returned to the Old City and the Patriarchal monastery located on the top of the Holy Sepulcher.
As different conflicts burst between the European colonial Powers (France, Germany, Great-Britain, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire), the clashes led to the Crimean war in 1856 that ended, in short, by the decision of the Sublime Porte (Bab-ı Ali) to grant anew the first rank among the Christian jurisdictions in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
This privilege had always been in force in Jerusalem and Bethlehem since the Early Church. When General and Caliph Omar Ibn Al Khattab conquered the Middle-East, he entered Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 637 CE. and decided to place the Christians (and the Jews) under the administrative and spiritual rule of Islam, which was concluded by the renown document, still in force for the local Orthodox Patriarchate, of the Achtiname or Decree of Tolerance. Caliph Omar gave it to the Greek (= Hellenistic) Patriarch Sophronios of Jerusalem. It is published every year in the annual Calendar of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in Greek, Arabic and now in Russian too.
After 1856, the Arab Orthodox (as also other Christian denominations such as the Georgian Orthodox, the Ethiopian ancient Orthodox i.a.) entrusted their properties and lands to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Arabs did it as a sign of confidence since most of them were and remain the members of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The other Orthodox or Ancient Orthodox are still arguing with the present Patriarchate of Jerusalem in order to get back the properties that they had entrusted to keep in custody. Some Churches had sold some of their propertiesto the Patriarchate of Jerusalem as “Mother of All the Churches” in order to retain the possessions in “Christian guardianship”. This is why the Georgian Patriarchate cannot be returned the Monastery of the Cross (the presence of the Georgian Orthodox Church is most ancient in Jerusalem) and other monasteries in the Old City and the country. The same is still a problem for the Serbian Orthodox Church. Other Orthodox jurisdictions are quite embattled with both the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and/or the State of Israel with regards to some possessions that cannot be proven by old Ottoman firmans.
When Jerusalem was destroyed shortly after the Achtiname (Decree of Tolerance) was granted to Patriarch Sophronios in 637 CE, Jerusalem was destroyed, Sophronios died and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate remained without Head. In 638 CE, the Armenian Church (the first Christian State that ememrged in 301 CE assigned an Armenian Patriarch in Jerusalem, thus creating a new situation and split among the Christian natives in Jerusalem.
In July 1099, the Roman Latin Catholic crusaders removed the Oriental believers and clergy people, the Orthodox and other denominations (Ethiopians/Abyssinians, Copts, Nestorians, Jacobites) and progressively seized land and properties, extending them throughout the ages, with ups and downs and finally some revival during the colonial period.
The Ottoman administration left Jerusalem in one night in November 1917. Under the British Mandate, the Churches were narrowly checked. A representative of the British Crown used to be sitting everyday in the Greek Orthodox financial office. The Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem was also in a dire situation because of the consequences of the Armenian mass-murders or genocide, as well ans the Syrian-Orthodox Church that had also been the ivctims together with the Pontic Greeks of the Ottoman Empire and the Young Turks.
In the meanwhile the Jewish National Fund (KKL/קרן קימת לישראל) and the Jewish Agency had acquired some land from the Arab population. The Churches did accept to lease their land and properties, especially after 1948 on the territory of Israel in its border of 1948-52.
In short, it is known that the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), the Museum of Israel and other major locations (Talbiyeh, Rehavia, Naiot) have been leased by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem to the Hebrew State for 90 years. The Israelis have also concluded contracts in force with the main Churches in the Holy Land and the State of Israel but would hardly make any declaration on the subject.
Different rumors showed up in July 2017 stating that the families who have been living in the buildings owned by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem had been sold. Subsequently, the new proprietor (still unknown though some names do circulate in town) would not accept to renew their personal peases. In fact there are not only Christian but also Jewish people who have spent all their life in large flats at low expenses.
These “sales of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate” have been the zigzaging topic of summer-time rumors in the last decades and the affair got swollen when patriarch Irenaios was compelled to step down in 2004. Long before, the twisting manoeuvers of the former Secretary General, Metropolitan Timotheos of Vostra, during the twenty year long reign of late Patriarch Diodoros of Jerusalem, led to different tractations to conclude juicy contracts with Israeli organizations. He is now Exarch of the Holy Sepulcher in Cyprus. This could be conducted because of the sickness of the patriarch and the rather blind personal ruthless ambition of the metropolitan.
Still, times have evolved. I always say that it suffices to have a real look at the Mount of Olives, the numerous Jewish “settlements” or “residences” leased or owned in the Old City of Jerusalem and in other surburbs. It does show that Church lands and properties have been leased and/sold, often by Arab go-betweens. Some of them have been murdered incidentally.
Suddenly, this year, dunams (comp. with Western acres) would have disappeared from the accounts of the Israeli financial authorities as also from the books of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. It started with some dunams in Jerusalem, continued with the historic Caesaria amphitheater compound. In the end, the Jaffa Clock Tower, dating 1903, would have been sold to some offshore and unknown buyer. The whole deals amount to millions of US. Dollars. It did not make the Patriarchate of Jerusalem the wealthy body it used to be in the days of a past prestige.
This news circulated as rumors, without any document to be shown by the medias. The real concern of the Churches in Israel is that the Jewish State imposes them as all the national oraginzations to pay income taxes, which was unheard beforehand: religious Christian structures were supposedly tax- and duty-free. This was not really tthe case by the time of the Ottoman rule…
In such a context, some people would require from the King of Jordan that he depose Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem and All Palestine and put a new Arab patriarch. Some affairists seriously claimed that the King of Jordan should put an end to “the Greek patriarchal occupation”! It makes no sense, it is weird, but it shows how things can be crooked in such an embattled environment. Moreover, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem is self-ruled: the members of the Holy and Sacred Synod use to elect the patriarch who is enthroned at the Holy Sepulcher even if the King of Jordan, the Palestinian authory Chairman and the Israeli government – or one of them – do not recognize the election.
Sovereignty is also a trendy topic. It is of course linked to who controls parcels of land, territories and the holy sites. Archbishop Theodosios-Attallah (Hanna) of Sebastie, an Arab Israeli pro-Palestinian activist, declared that the State of Israel intends to seize the Al-Ḥaram al-Šarīf, i.e. the Temple Mount and exercize full control there in order, thereafter “to take control of the Holy Sepulcher and the most holy places of Christendom” (sic).
Now, since 1967, Israel has conquered the territories by a war victory and the defeat of the Arab Armies. Conquests have been a motto for all the countries of the world in the course of historic development, to begin with the former European colonialist Powers and/or the Russian Empire and so forth.
“Occupation” is the correct word that is abusively misused in order to describe the strong process of changes that go on in Jerusalem along with in-depth identity quests.
[from my blog in Le Monde “Abbaa”, Part I, to be continued]