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.
Different parameters should be taken into account when trying to describe the present-day situation. It is known that the Temple Mount is a major concern in the general changes that affect the Middle-East. The Ottoman regime had fallen abruptly, knocked down by the the European Powers who were then capable of some real influence in the Fertile Crescent.
This is not the case at the present and it took about a century to reach to such a new situation. Some places apparently remain in the hands of some of these European Powers (Great-Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Vatican that is in fact a part of these European superpowers even if the Holy See is a modest and tiny piece of land inside of Rome. Its actions reach out to the whole world and, of course, to the Near & Middle-East).
Each of these European countries face real hardships in maintaining their presence in Israel or in the Territories as some of their monasteries only have a few permanent residents; they are rarely Israeli citizens and dispose of rather large pieces of land and related properties which they hardly can develop. On the other hand, the State of Israel needs them either for security reasons or because of its natural economic and demographic growth .
The Holy See is definitely concerned to preserve its status in the Palestinian Territories where the Sharia is in force and the local Christians relocated in the center of Israel, which is not much publicized.
It is not possible to disconnect what is going on in Jerusalem and the Temple Mount in July 2017 from what is on the way in the neighboring countries, i.e. :
a) The split and possible destruction of the State of Syria, segmented into pieces of several regions, still under a sort of temporary rule of president Ashar El Assad, with twisting manoeuvers played by international competition between the Russians, the Allied or Coalition and the United States. Israel looks at the actions carried out by the Russian Federation that endeavors to keep some access to the Mediterranean Sea and supposedly support the Christian Churches. This claim is quite a paradox if compared with the manifold activities developed by some French charity organizations (like the “Oeuvre d’Orient”) that focus on helping the Catholics and systematically ignore or condemn Israel, explaining in their publications and interviews what Israel should do to act “adequately”!
In fact, the Russians envision their presence in Syria with regards to the long procession of evolution that is taking place in Jerusalem where the Russian Orthodox Church of Moscow and the more traditional Moscow-linked Russian Church Abroad celebrate this year the 170 anniversary of the Russian Orthodox presence in the Holy Land.
The Patriarchate of Moscow only tiptoed to accept and cope witt the election of deposed patriarch, now Monk Irenaios. His status is on a repair and he appeared a year again with the full dress of a bishop or metropolitan wearing the “Panagia (engolpion of the Blessed Mary)” after he reconciled with Patriarch Theophilos.
To begin with, (the “Russian-backed candidate” was Metropolitan Timotheos of Vostra, former Secretary General of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem for twenty years, who had been educated in Leningrad and whose father was a well-known communist. They had donated him two magnificently wooden carved ‘thrones’ in view of his being elected. But he was not chosen.
Those Russian connections definitely could not allow him to be elected by the very Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem. They are much conscious of having some historic responsibility toward the Hellenistic heritage of Christianity in the Holy Land (if not Judaism since the Septuagint does show the fascination of some Jewish communities for the Greek language and culture). As for now, Met. Timotheos is kept a bit away from the mainland, thus in Cyprus, and shows here and there in Slavic contexts as the upcoming Saint Vladimir Day on July 28 next.
The Russian Church is still not capable to reach out to proper discussions with the Israeli Government and Legal Authorities who, in return, keep them aside (Russian Arab schools where Israeli girls are educated without any required contacts with Israeli society and regulations with regards to Military Service and other features).
b) Lebanon is on the verge of a collapse. The country has been too long in a very destructive internal situation. The Maronite Church cannot succeed, for the moment, to secure the existing structures. Hezbollah constitutes an advanced Iranian threat for both the local Arab inhabitants and the Israelis in the Northern part of Galilee.
Lebanon is overcrowded by Syrian refugees whom the country tries not to kick out of the national territory. The refugees are Arabs, numerous as the Palestinians are, and they progressively settle in a multi-ghettoized region along the Golan Heights that spread till Jordan and some parts of Iraq.
c) Jordan is endangered. It has been imperiled since its very creation after World War II and is, in fact, a part of the real territory that should have been divided between the Jewish homeland and the Arab -now Palestinian – Partition program in 1947.
King Hussein bin Talal had miraculously been saved on the Temple Mount when his father King Abdullah I was murdered in 1947 and taken to the Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Throughout the period of the Jordanian administration, King Hussein carefully managed to preserve Jerusalem’s political and administrative inferiority vis-à-vis Amman and to discriminate it with regards to the allocation of resources. Hussein refused to recognize Jerusalem as the Jordanian capital though he considered that the City was the spiritual center of the Kingdom. In the 1970’s, due to the loss of the West Bank, Jordan focused on the definition of a new “national, strictly Jordanian and not Palestinian identity” based on Nabatean, Roman and Arab heritages.
King Abdullah II is not really much concerned about the City of Jerusalem. His custodianship of the Holy Sites was merely determined by the Israeli authorities who confirmed his responsibility over the Holy Sites of Islam and Christianity in Jerusalem.
This led to some stratageme and an agreement passed in 2013 by King Abdullah and Mahmud Abbas for the Palestinian Authority recongizing the guardianship of the Holy Sites in East-Jerusalem. In fact, the deal had been defined and concluded between the Israelis and King Abdullah in 1994 when the Jewish State “created” a special status for the King of Jordan that placed him in a peculiar rank compared to the Islamic traditional roles and ranks.
The input of the Hashemite dynasty has been great in the process or restoration of the Mosque’s, particular Al-Aqsa and recnetly the King made a personal Makruma or donation for the restoration of the Tomb of Jesus inside of the Holy Sepulcher.
Since 2014, more than 1,8 million Syrian refugees came to Jordan. They settled also in the Golan Heights area and King Abdullah II spoke of Jordan as having become a “boiling point”.
d) The Sinai is an embattled region at the moment, ruled by Egypt, with the presence of the St Catherine Monastery, one of the most ancient Greek Orthodox Holy Place placed under the protection of Prophet Muhammad who visited the site (628 CE, known as Ashtiname). It is a self-ruled patriarchate headed by an Archbishop (Damaskinos) and it depends on the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Beside the Daesh clashes and the attacks against the Egyptian Army, especially in the North of the Sinai, it should be noted that the Russians are quite present in the peninsula, mainly because of the presence of tourists, “spiritual and spa retreat compounds”, visitors to the Monastery and the guest-houses, hotel compounds that have been built along the coast (Tabaa).
e) ISIS is acting in Israel in different ways. Many Israeli Arabs are tempted to join the movement that is drowning the Niniveh Plains and around Raqqa. The collapse of Daesh may happen soon or in the near future in terms of military “victory” on undefined borders. But the Islamic State has very special features that are new in the Middle-East and strategical points of view : ISIS does not require a real territory. It is basically a virtual State. Thus, it can continue its actions by gathering all sorts of voluntary fighters, based on the places where they want to act, carry out specific alert-terror attacks or influence and change the social rules in force in different countries.
Thus, the killing of two Druze Israelis by Arab Israelis shows that the whole of the new 2017 Temple Mount affair is centered on Israel per se. It is an internal blast that the Israeli government should have handled wisely. As usual, things have been run out by the government as a matter that would regulate the conflicts affecting the stability of the governmental by. This element is facing harsh contradiction and opposition in the country. This is a way that often showed to be negative for Israel, then developing into a slow step-by-step process not to resolve the real situation but rather to maintain a long-term governmental power system.
Daesh is present in Israel. The Islamic State knows that it lost the so-called territory of the Caliphate that was initiated in 2014. The real battle is more eschatological and recalls to the world that Jerusalem, as Mecca are duly under the “protection” of Islam as Muhammad had decided in 628 CE and Caliph Omar ibn Al Khattab had decreed in the name of the Prophet on the 15th year of Hejirah (627 CE). In the Middle-East conception of history and relationships, even after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire one century ago, this Decree remains totally in force and this is definitely unkown to the Churches scattered in the many diasporas. They hardly understand why the Decree is still valid and they behave as estranged to the local reality.
This cannot systematically be denied by any external superpower, whether European, British, American, French, German, Italian and even the Holy See (Rome/Vatican) or by the Russian Federation acting as the heir of the Tsarist Empire and the representative of the reviving Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Moscow. The Orthodox Russian structure is new in the Middle-East since it only was restored after the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917. The Russian Orthodox Church of Moscow has been present locally for 170 years and after the split of the Russian Church Abroad/in Exile, the land and properties were run without real documents. The authenticity of the documents is difficult to confirm as also the recognition of the Ottoman firmans granted to the Russian organizations.
This allows a basic overview of the context: harsh recurrent clashes happen on the Temple Mount and should develop in the coming years. It is quite evident that the Status Quo on stand-by will be reconsidered with regards to two topics:
a) Over the years, the Jewish State is in the shape of a growing laboratory, a boiling samovar that brings forth seeds of life and future development . It is now a major economic, mental, spiritual, societal actor of international forward dynamics for the whole world.
Whatsoever recent murders, these happened in July 2017, i.e. as the Consolation month of Av 5777 commences, leading to the 9th of Av (August 1st, 2017), commemorating the destructions of the Temple of Jerusalem . It has been at the heart of Jewish identity and hope throughout the ages, long before Common Era. Nabuchadnuzzar destroyed it and deported the Jews to Babylone in 586 BCE.
b) Islam had been smashed down at the end of World War I and the total collapse of the Ottoman Empire, sealed in 1919 at Versailles. Today, the Arab world and the Muslims who are present in a wide range of non-Arab countries (Asia, Africa, Europe) show up as a spiritual, influential and acting actor that had been colonized and maintained in a low condition by the superpowers.
Islam continues to impact Jerusalem and Mecca in a way that had been concluded by the Prophet and his successors in the Middle-East. This introduces a parameter that is definitely not recognized by the Jews and subsequently the State f Israel but is quite present in the memory and the attitude of the local Churches (Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Patriarchates of Jerusalem inter alia) who have been subject to Islamic laws and regulations since 638 CE. They continue to act accordingly while the external Church bodies do not consider that they are tied by the said Decree of Omar Ibn Al Khattab.
This why the sale of land and properties by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate has become a recurrent issue each time the Temple Mount is on fire. There is indeed a pending question. The internal situation of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem is definitely special and bizarre for most of those who have no local inside expertise.
It would be highly advisable to get some real insights into the history of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Patriarchate of the Sinai, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the other Churches of Jerusalem. Each time they have been on the verge of being erased, they found impressive human and intellectual resources to overcome the desperate situations of history. They have an exceptional know-how and “flair” that has rarely been studied over the ages and remains a sort of mystery for the foreigners.
Still, this is the first time they have to face direct submittance to the Laws in force in the State of Israel. They could hardly imagine such a situation beforehand and they can be at pains in try to discuss with the Israeli authorities. It remains “weird” for the Churches of Jerusalem to be now under the control of the Jewish State of Israel. One should remember that non of the Oriental Churches have recognized or intend to admit the existence of the State of Israel. Theologically speaking, the “notion of the Jews beng a deicide people” is definitely powerful, especially in the local context of the Holy Land.
In the meanwhile, the Jews have reached a unique new point that they did experience over ages: how to act with righteousness toward all the different forms of present-day Judaism and make Jerusalem, with the Temple Mount in its midst, an acceptable challenge for human conscience of the Divine Presence