Church leaders call expansion of Israeli national park a ‘direct attack on the Christians in the Holy Land’

An Israeli flag flies near the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene atop the Mount of Olives in occupied East Jerusalem (AFP)

Jeff Wright

Mondoweiss  /  February 21, 2022

Church leaders in Jerusalem have expressed their “gravest concern and unequivocal objection” to an Israeli plan to extend the Jerusalem Walls National Park to include the Mount of Olives, one of Christianity’s holiest sites.

In a sharply worded letter to Israel’s Minister for the Protection of the Environment, leaders of the historic churches in Jerusalem describe Israel’s plan to extend the Jerusalem Walls National Park by an additional 68 acres as “a direct and premeditated attack on the Christians in the Holy Land, on the churches and on their ancient, internationally guaranteed rights in the Holy City.”

According to an article in Sunday’s The Times of Israel, a map of the proposed extension shared internally among municipal officials includes large swaths of the Mount of Olives and parts of the Kidron and Ben Hinnon Valleys—properties privately owned by Palestinians and Franciscan, Armenian and Greek Orthodox Churches.

Friday’s letter, addressed to Israel’s environment minister Tamar Zandberg, was written by Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, Catholic Church Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton, and Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian. The patriarchs describe the Mount of Olives as “one of the holiest sites for Christianity. It hosts some of the most important shrines for Christians.” The letter continues, “In recent years, we cannot help but feel that various entities are seeking to minimize, not to say eliminate any non-Jewish characteristics of the Holy City….” 

The patriarchs acknowledge that the current plan has been officially put forward by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), which operates under the authority of the environmental protection ministry. However, they claim, “it seems that [the plan] was put forward and is being orchestrated, advanced and promoted by entities whose apparent sole purpose is to confiscate and nationalize one of the holiest sites for Christianity and alter its nature.”

Without their naming the City of David Foundation (referred to in Hebrew as Elad), the Heads of Churches are clearly referring to Elad and other settler organizations that, with the blessing of the INPA, oversee much of the development and archeological digs in the park. Elad has been widely criticized by many, including Israeli NGOs, as a highly ideological nonprofit that promotes a nationalist political agenda. 

“Under the guise of protecting green spaces,” the patriarch’s letter continues, “the plan appears to serve an ideological agenda that denies the status and rights of Christians in Jerusalem.”

“Under the guise of protecting green spaces,” the patriarch’s letter continues, “the plan appears to serve an ideological agenda that denies the status and rights of Christians in Jerusalem.”

Today, four Israeli peace and human rights organizations working together to see that the plan is cancelled, issued a Joint Alert. In their comprehensive report, BimkomEmek ShavehIr Amim and Peace Now describe the impact of the proposed plan. “Palestinian neighborhoods will be cut off from the Old City and residential development for these communities will be further limited.” The statement points to nearly 20 Christian sites that are either in or surrounded by the area designated by the expansion, resulting “in a narrow Christian enclave encircled by areas of Israeli control and dominance.”

“This plan,” the alert charges, “initiated without any dialogue with Christian stakeholders in Jerusalem, indicates an Israeli disregard and contempt for the churches and Christians worldwide.” 

“Regretfully,” the patriarchs charge in their statement, “this is not the first time the INPA is playing a hostile role against the Churches and the Christian presence in the Holy Land. We are saddened to see such an important Authority being misused in this way.”

According to The Times of Israel, a spokeswoman for the INPA acknowledged that the churches don’t support the project. But she insisted that the proposed park extension won’t hurt the churches, that it “is designed to preserve the historic terrain, as national parks are meant to do.” 

But the Joint Alert by Bimkom, Emek Shaveh Ir Amim and Peace Now argues that the plan’s “sole purpose (alongside other discriminatory laws and policies) is to serve a religious right-wing agenda for the Old City Basin. It is a cynical misuse of heritage and environment protections discourse as a tool for justifying settlement expansion, restricting Palestinian development, and further entrenching Israeli sovereignty.”

Daniel Seidemann, founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem, is a globally recognized legal expert on issues related to Jerusalem. In a tweet posted Saturday, he wrote, “The importance of this [planned extension] cannot be exaggerated. If I am not mistaken, this creates a rift and the most serious crisis between Israel and the major world churches in Jerusalem since 1948.”

ABC News reported this morning that, “following vociferous outcry from major churches,” the Israel Nature and Parks Authority was backing down from the plan. Longtime observers of the Palestine/Israel situation may greet this announcement with skepticism. Emek Shaveh’s Talya Ezrahi says, “We’re not holding our breath until we hear that the plan is completely withdrawn.”

Jeff Wright is a retired pastor of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and currently serves as a mission co-worker appointed to Kairos Palestine