Last week’s closure of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – Christianity’s ‘holiest site’ – was not just a protest over perceived government intervention; it was an “alarm signal” over the future of the city, according to a church spokesperson.
“Can Jerusalem be a holy city for Jews, as well as Christians and Muslims?” Father Nikodemus Schnabel told German Catholic broadcaster domradio.de.
The German-born monk is prior of Jerusalem’s Abbey of the Dormition, on Mount Zion, which has been targeted several times by vandals spraying anti-Christian slogans such as “Christians go to Hell” and “Death to the heathen Christians, the enemies of Israel”. In 2014 an arsonist set fire to a building on the property, which is just outside the walls of the Old City.
Fr. Schnabel said that he dreams of seeing all three monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) sharing Jerusalem, but that there are powers at work who do not share that vision.
“Pressure on Christians is growing,” Schnabel said. “There are those who would like to see a decrease in Christians … and there are groups who declare that Israel belongs to the Jews and that all non-Jews should leave.”
The monk said that although it was a “very drastic step”, it was “understandable” the churches felt the need to take action.
The doors to the church were closed for three days last week as a culmination of weeks of protests by churches in the city against what they called a “systematic campaign against … the Christian community of the Holy Land” – following a proposal to tax churches for commercial property they own in the city and a government bill aimed at regulating the sale of church land.
Church leaders agreed to re-open the site after an announcement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office that a team would be formed to “formulate a solution” with the churches’ representatives to both the tax dispute and the controversial bill.
Fr. Schnabel added that Christians in Israel wanted to speak for themselves, rather than seeing Western politicians speak for them: “Christians have been living here for centuries. They only make up 2 per cent of the population, a minority, and are the smallest community in the country. They want to be the ones who talk about what their challenges are and what it is like to be a minority.”
In another interview with a German newspaper, quoted by the Catholic daily La Croix, he said that religions and politics should remain separate: “We religions must not allow ourselves to be pocketed. We are a counterpart to politics. One cannot literally derive a concrete policy from Holy Scripture texts – be it from the Quran, the Talmud or, most especially, the Bible. They are not simple instruction manuals. If you take them literally that is equivalent to violating the Holy Scriptures.”
Meanwhile a 55-year-old Christian bookshop in Tel Aviv, the Israeli capital, faces closure over a dispute with the owner of the premises, who says the shop should not sell Christian books other than the Bible.
The Bible Society, which operates the bookshop, has also been charged with violating the rental agreement by allegedly adding another partner and so “chang[ing] the identity of the renting party”.
Advocacy group Middle East Concern reported that the final hearing took take place on Monday, 5 March, with the decision expected in a few weeks.