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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 2/28/18

Money, not the protection of Palestinian Christians, was at the root of Holy Sepulchre protest

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Confined to overcrowded ghettos by Israel, starved of economic and social opportunities, and victims like other Palestinians of trigger-happy Israeli security forces, many have tapped overseas networks of Christians to re-establish their lives in Europe or North America.

Notably, however, it was not this prolonged exodus that prompted the churches to close the doors of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, or the Nativity Church in Bethlehem.

No Catholic custodian or Greek patriarch has dared to take such a decisive and bold stance in solidarity with the Holy Land's "living stones" -- Palestine's Christians.

Whatever the public relations spin, the Holy Sepulchre was shuttered chiefly because the churches' business interests were in jeopardy.

That was why Aleef Sabbagh, a Palestinian member of the Orthodox Central Council that for many months has been trying to oust their Greek overlord, Patriarch Theophilos III, called the protest a "charade."

He noted that local Christians had long demanded the closure of the Holy Sepulchre to protest Israeli policies but had always been overruled by church leaders.

The church did not shut during the second intifada, when Palestinians were being killed in large numbers, nor during Israel's repeated attacks on Gaza.

Business interests?

When the statement from the heads of the churches angrily denounced Israel's break with the "status quo," they meant a financial status quo -- what they termed their "rights and privileges" -- that has chiefly benefitted the clerics of Italy and Greece.

At the heart of the stand-off with Israel were two issues that have incensed church leaders.

One was a recent decision by the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, to end the churches' long-standing exemption from paying municipal taxes on their properties. Given the churches' vast land holdings, the Jerusalem municipality hoped to collect more than $180m in back taxes.

The other concern was draconian legislation the Israeli government had drafted to seize properties that the churches -- chiefly the Greek Orthodox Patriarch -- had been leasing at knockdown prices to private Israeli developers and settler groups.

Churches "squeezed"

Despite the ostensible climbdown this week, Israel has not actually abandoned either of these policies. According to Israeli media, they have been "postponed." History suggests that the Israeli authorities will simply wait for a better opportunity, or find a different route, to arrive at the same destination.

Israel's long-standing approach has been to intimidate the Churches by all means possible. At different times it has frozen clerical work visas, and refused or delayed approval of senior appointments, including that of the Greek Orthodox patriarch himself.

Israel regularly obstructs planning permits for church property. Meanwhile, far-right groups close to the governing coalition menace clergy in the streets and vandalise church property under cover of dark.

The latest efforts to financially "squeeze" the churches were designed to intensify the intimidation, stoking their debts to further weaken their standing. That would have been bad news for Palestinians, making the churches even more submissive in their dealings with Israel.

It would also have risked fuelling the sell-off of more Church land -- to Israel -- to pay off existing debts and avoid incurring future ones. Palestinians living on those lands, especially in Jerusalem, would then have been at Israel's mercy.

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)

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