Christians denounce Israel’s manhandling of worshipers at Holy Sepulcher on Easter weekend; Israel apologizes to Egypt

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church holy sepulchre 1
Tomb of Jesus, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. The ground on which the church stands is venerated by most Christians as where Jesus was crucified. (Photography: Sam Rohn)

What happened at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher on May 4th, “Holy Saturday”, the eve of Easter Sunday? Outraged Christians are decrying Israeli police measures that prevented Palestinians from worshiping on that day:

We, the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, watched with sorrowful hearts the horrific scenes of the brutal treatment of our clergy, people, and pilgrims in the Old City of Jerusalem during Holy Saturday last week. A day of joy and celebration was turned to great sorrow and pain for some of our faithful because they were ill-treated by some Israeli policemen who were present around the gates of the Old City and passages that lead to the Holy Sepulcher.

Israeli forces attack worshipers Church of Holy Sepulcher Easter Mass 2013

And Israel has apologized to Egypt for an attack on Egyptian diplomats and a religious leader.

The American media have completely ignored this story (with one bizarre exception, below). Here is what I have learned about what appears to be another case of Israel’s violent provocation of Palestinians. 

Early Saturday May 4– at a time when Orthodox Christians were welcoming in Easter with the “Holy Fire” ceremony in Gaza– tens of thousands of Christians gathered in Jerusalem and “thousands” of Israeli police officers were deployed to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The head of the National Christian Coalition in the Holy Land said Israeli security forces were present inside the church itself and on its roof, and prevented many worshipers from getting into the church. As one witness said, these forces “turned a religious occasion into a battle camp scenario.”

Ma’an News reported that barriers were set up in the early hours of the morning to keep people out of the courtyard of the church. AlJazeera Channel video shows the turbulence outside these barricades, with some being beaten by police.

A group that calls itself Palestinian Christians issued an alarming  “angry” appeal to the heads of churches stating that Palestinian Christians were unable to enter the church. They called on the leaders to “say a word of truth to the Israeli Authorities… your silence kill us….. this year, was the worst.”

From the group’s Facebook post:

Military barriers were put in the Old city of Jerusalem. Christian Palestinians, from the Christian Quarter could not reach the Holy Sepulchre Church.
All the ways going to the Holy Sepulchre were closed.
All entrances to the Holy Sepulchre were closed
The place before the Basilica was closed
Inside the Church were also military barriers, even around the “Stone of Anointment” and the “Sepulchre”.
Christians were forbidden to reach freely to the Church. The soldiers aggressed them.

Whose intention is it to forbid us to pray in the Holy Sepulchre?

The Church was full with Israeli soldiers with their weapons, guns, hats, eating sandwiches, joking, speaking with their mobile phones, hearing songs, laughing loudly…

The heads of churches responded three days ago, in a Statement from the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, concerning the Israeli police measures on Holy Saturday, quoted above. It continues:

We understand the necessity and the importance of the presence of security forces to ensure order and stability, and for organizing the celebration of the Holy Fire at the Church of the Resurrection. Yet, it is not acceptable that under pretext of security and order, our clergy and people are indiscriminately and brutally beaten, and prevented from entering their churches, monasteries and convents.

We urge the Israeli authorities especially the Ministry of Interior and the police department in Jerusalem, to seriously consider our complaints, to hold responsibility and to condemn all acts of violence against our faithful and the clergy who were ill-treated by the police. We deplore that every year, the police measures are becoming tougher, and we expect that these accidents will not be repeated and the police should be more sensitive and respectful if they seek to protect and serve.

We also denounce all those who are blaming the churches and holding them responsible of the Israeli measures during Holy Week celebrations…. [We] urge the Israeli authorities to allow full access to the Holy sites during Holy Week of both Church Calendars.

[Full list of signatories at link]

Israeli forces attack worshipers, Church of Holy Sepulcher Easter Mass 2013

Meanwhile, Ma’an reported that on Sunday Israel issued an apology to Egypt after Egypt’s foreign minister summoned Israel’s ambassador to complain that  Egyptian diplomats and a Coptic clergyman were attacked by Israel’s police while trying to attend Easter Mass.

Ma’an News Agency

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry summoned Israel’s ambassador in Cairo after the attack during Orthodox Easter celebrations at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Israel Broadcasting Authority said.

Israeli police say they were not notified of the attack but that they will investigate immediately, the IBA [the Israel Broadcasting Authority] reported.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Amr Roshdy told Egypt’s daily Al-Ahram that Israeli authorities tried to stop Egyptian diplomatic officials from attending Coptic Easter mass.

And here’s a 6 minute video “clearly depicts a highly-publicized assault, during which Father Arsanios, the 85-year-old head of the Coptic Church in Ramallah, can be seen being battered” by the Jerusalem Police.

In email correspondence, Yusef Daher, executive secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre, and author of Access to worship in Jerusalem! (pdf) told me “There has been no official Israeli explanation” of the attacks. He also stated:

A feeling of exclusive access to Jews and all kinds of restrictions against the others is mounting every year. This is leading the city to be a ticking bomb when these policies are coupled with other policies that are discriminatory in nature and against all human rights in general.

As for that one mention in the American media? Under the deceptive headline Jerusalem’s dwindling Christians celebrate Orthodox Easter, The Denver Post published a story by Welsh crime novelist/journalist Mike Rees implying thousands of Palestinian Christians were not in attendance because their numbers are dwindling; “caught in other peoples’ conflicts. They are victims of the dispute between Israel and the Palestinian Muslim majority.” Rees speaks of worshipers with “Slavic” faces in the church. No mention of throngs of Palestinian worshipers, prevented from entering the church by “thousands” of Israeli police. 

Christian Statement
               Israeli forces preventing Palestinian Christians access to Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem, Holy Saturday 2013 (photo: Ma’an News)

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