Jerusalem’s Heads of Churches protest Jewish settler takeover of hotel in Old City’s Christian quarter

Jeff Wright

Mondoweiss  /  April 8, 2022

“The seizure of the Little Petra Hotel by the radical extremist group Ateret Cohanim is a threat to the continued existence of a Christian Quarter in Jerusalem,” says Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III.

On Sunday evening, March 27, radical members of an extremist Jewish settler group were accompanied by Israeli police as they took control of the Little Petra Hotel in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Located near the Jaffa Gate in occupied East Jerusalem, the hotel is the subject of a years-long and as-yet undecided legal battle between the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and Ateret Cohanim [Crown of the Priests], a Jewish settler group which describes itself as “the leading urban land reclamation organization in Jerusalem, which has been working for over 40 years to restore Jewish life in the heart of ancient Jerusalem.” The group seeks to increase Jewish settlement in occupied East Jerusalem, illegal under international law.

Two days later, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Beatitude Theophilos III organized a press conference to address the settlers having illegally entered and barricaded themselves in the hotel. The Heads of Churches in Jerusalem and other religious leaders attended the briefing during which they expressed their outrage and their support for the Greek Orthodox Church. Then they marched to the hotel to draw the world’s attention to what, in a statement read at the press conference, Theophilos described as “a pattern of intimidation, violence and lawless action to drive Christians and Muslims from the city we share.” 

“The seizure of the Little Petra Hotel by the radical extremist group Ateret Cohanim,” Theopholis said, “is a threat to the continued existence of a Christian Quarter in Jerusalem.”

“In occupying the Greek Orthodox Church’s property… Ateret Cohanim has committed criminal acts of break-in and trespass,” Theophilos charged. “They act as if they are above the law, with no fear of consequences.” His statement continued, “This issue is not about the individual properties, but about the whole character of Jerusalem, including the Christian Quarter. The Little Petra Hotel stands on the pilgrim route for the millions of Christians who visit Jerusalem each year. It represents Christian heritage, and speaks of our very existence in this place.”

Theophilos described the Greek Patriarchate’s “good faith negotiations with the Israeli government to settle the status of [the] Christian heritage properties that sit on the Christian pilgrim route.” He said, “We were assured that there would be no changes to the facts on the ground in the Christian Quarter while these negotiations are ongoing. The actions of Ateret Cohanim this week violate that assurance.”

The Patriarch reminded the group how Jerusalem’s Christian leaders had “repeatedly warned of the illegitimate actions of extremists.” He was referring in part to a joint statement issued on December 13 last year in which thirteen Patriarchs and other heads of churches expressed their “grave concern” that the Israeli government’s commitment to provide a safe home for Christians in the Holy Land “is betrayed by the failure of local politicians, officials and law enforcement agencies to curb the activities of radical groups who regularly intimidate local Christians, assault priests and clergy, and desecrate Holy sites and church properties.” 

Later, in both a Christmas Eve speech and a January 8 Op-Ed published in the British daily, The Times, Theophilos went beyond the group’s December statement to identify the radical groups as “Zionist extremists,” at whose hands he wrote, “the Christian community in Jerusalem is suffering greatly… Our brothers and sisters are the victims of hate crimes.”

In a December press release, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had chastised the church leaders for their December 23 statement. In January, an Israeli official rejected Theophilos’ further accusations as baseless. 

To date, the State of Israel has not issued a statement regarding the Ateret Cohanim’s illegal takeover of the Little Petra Hotel, the Patriarch’s statement, or the religious leaders’ protest gathering near the hotel.

On April 6, Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) issued a statement of support. CMEP is a coalition of more than 30 American church communions and organizations working “to encourage US policies that actively promote a comprehensive resolution to conflicts in the Middle East.” Their statement reads, “CMEP stands in solidarity with the sacred churches of Jerusalem and condemns this illegal capture of the hotel. In addition, CMEP recognizes the threat of radical extremist settler groups to the sustainability of the Christian community in the Holy Land.” The statement continues, “CMEP calls for an end to all settler violence and control and a commitment to peaceful coexistence and the sacredness of the Holy City to two people groups—Israelis and Palestinians—and the three Abrahamic faith traditions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.”

When asked to comment further, CMEP’s Senior Director of Advocacy and Government Relations Kyle Cristofalo said, “The current situation unfolding at the Little Petra Hotel is not an anomaly. It fits within a pattern of attacks against Christians and Church affiliated properties in Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank by radical settler groups. Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) stands with the Christian community in Jerusalem and is committed to advocating for the religious freedom of all in the Holy Land.”

In a press release from the World Council of Churches, Acting General Secretary Rev. Prof. Ioan Sauca, expressed the international ecumenical organization’s “firm solidarity with Patriarch Theophilos and the other local church leaders in preserving the Christian presence in Jerusalem.” He said that the WCC “calls for an end to impunity in Israel for such violations, for the police authorities to remove the illegal occupants from the Little Petra Hotel, and for them to be held accountable for the criminal offences they have committed.” Sauca described an assurance given at Christmas last year by Israel’s President Herzog, who said, “[Israel] will stand strong against any forms of racism, discrimination, or extremism, and we will reject any assault or threat on religious communities, leaders, or houses of worship.”

“Israeli radical extremist groups,” Theophilos said, are “targeting and hijacking our beloved old city of Jerusalem and imposing their illegitimate and dangerous agenda on all sides. We refuse this,” he said, “and we say: this will lead to instability and tension at the time when all are trying to de-escalate and build trust, to build towards justice and peace.”

This year, the holy seasons of Easter, Ramadan and Passover are being observed simultaneously. Persons familiar with last year’s events in Sheikh Jarrah, at the Damascus Gate and on Haram al Sharif (the Temple Mount) are left to wonder if extremist Jews are seeking to reignite hostilities.

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