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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)
Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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15 Responses

  1. American on May 16, 2013, 1:14 pm

    That’s a really wimp ass statement by the Heads of Churches …they need to use the same language Isr does….We demand!—We condemn!…etc,etc….

  2. Betsy on May 16, 2013, 1:16 pm

    Excellent article, Annie! and, on a topic that is being ignored just about everywhere in the mainstream media…as far as I can tell…

    • annie on May 16, 2013, 1:37 pm

      betsy, thank you, and thanks for all your assistance getting this up.

      i searched the msm here and as i mention in the draft the only coverage was from denver post, and article by rees that whitewashes what happened and makes no mention of it in their headline..just ‘dimishing’ christians. they also do not mention the thousand of police but rees does say

      But as the Christian presence here dwindles, the number of police seem to almost rival the number of local Christians.

      and reference “a pack of sweating Palestinian Christians“.

      they are being white washed from the scene, as if they hardly exist. and he says:

      Most of the pilgrims to enter the church in the early morning were outsiders with broad Slavic faces.

      he doesn’t mention “allowed to enter the church,” he implies the palestinian christians are hardly there of their own volition. this is being whitewashed out of the history of what happened. thank goodness for egypt and palestinian christians determined voices, hopefully we can get this story out.

      • Betsy on May 16, 2013, 4:41 pm

        whoa! the SWEAT MEME again!

        this seems to be part of the dehumanization toolkit…Reminds me of Rudoren’s notorious description of Palestinian funeral

        Sweat streamed through the beards of three men clutching the body of 7-year-old Jamal Dalu as they raced through the streets toward his final resting place

      • annie on May 16, 2013, 6:25 pm

        i know. it was gross. the whole thing was a propaganda hatchet job, just subtle enough to slide into a ‘series’ on religion (for dummies) and perpetuate a myth palestinian christian are ‘caught’ between those violent muslims and israelis. as if that was the bone of contention.

  3. annie on May 16, 2013, 1:51 pm

    also, i recommend clicking the photographers name under the photo and checking out roving panoramic views of the inside of jesus tomb and other locations inside Church of the Holy Sepulchre. it is truly amazing. the photos move around so you can see everything if you click on them. here’s the link again:

  4. a blah chick on May 16, 2013, 7:09 pm

    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.”

    He’s written a series of crime novels set in the West Bank. Wikipedia says that the books focus solely on Palestinian society and never feature Israelis.

    How can you write about Palestinians and never show them interacting with Israelis? The fact that he would characterize the situation of Christians there as being caught in the middle of the conflict shows he does not know as much about the place as he thinks he does.

    • annie on May 16, 2013, 10:45 pm

      The fact that he would characterize the situation of Christians there as being caught in the middle of the conflict shows he does not know as much about the place as he thinks he does.

      you’re too kind, i thought much worse. i actually dived into many aspects of this story (click on the photographers name under the top photo to really get a grasp of the fullness of the setting) and read some of his other articles. he’s well situated, that’s for sure.

  5. Daniel Rich on May 16, 2013, 9:20 pm

    @ Annie Robbins,

    side note: I must indeed compliment you on digging up all those stories that fly below the radar [or are kept there]. Deprived of sufficient time myself, I laud you for all the effort you put into keeping me informed.

    I know I’m a big, scary looking guy, but would you allow me to give you a little hug?



  6. piotr on May 16, 2013, 9:20 pm

    Perhaps some American media will report the story later. Sometimes they are pretty slow. I am watching the story of police in Bakersfield, CA, killing a poor Latino man by beating with their sticks and confiscating phones of people who called 911 to stop the beating. For about a week the only English language media reporting the story were in Bakersfield, plus Russian TV. As we discuss NYT depictions of various events, you may be interested in this title “Fatal Encounter With Police Is Caught on Video, but Kept From the Public”.

    Perhaps what made the story “newsworthy” (or kosher?) was the fact that FBI agreed to investigate at the request of the chief of Bakersfield police who for a week seemed to trust the ability of his department to investigate itself. I will watch the case, because on one hand, law enforcement has huge whitewashing capacity, and on the other, they are really stretching the envelope here. But the perspectives adopted by the media is very interesting as well. For example, the most newsworthy aspect appears to be the confiscation of the cell phones (with one of the two videos erased?), and several experts were asked for opinion. To me, the most interesting aspect is how bestial police would have to be to be charged with murder (or at least homicide)? Instead, we have lyrical “fatal encounter”,

    Perhaps this is off topic, but the connection is the following: a very perceptive observation by Dershowitz that he have not met people who truly care about Palestinians. Poorly educated workers are in a similar category.

    • annie on May 16, 2013, 10:59 pm

      there’s something really sinister going on here piotr. open the embedded link in:

      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.

      and note they say ” Old City”, they say he’s the head of the Coptic Church in Ramallah (which he is). they say it’s the jerusalem police, but they show a photo of the church in ramallah. and it’s published 10 days after the event only when the video is leaked, after the egyptian embassy complains about their diplomats and the 85 yr old getting beaten.

      granted, they never say the attack was at the church in ramallah (they do not lie), and they say ‘Old City’ and everyone in the region knows what that means, but they never say it was at the Holy Sepulcher. they reference “heads of the Churches of Jerusalem condemning the Jerusalem officers.” (which happened in jerusalem) but they never say it happened in jerusalem at the Holy Sepulcher.

      it’s ten days later and they are only writing about it because the video has been released, it’s a coverup.

  7. Woody Tanaka on May 17, 2013, 8:56 am

    “Rees speaks of worshipers with ‘Slavic’ faces in the church. ”

    Did he mention all the Jews with “Slavic” faces who came from Europe to steal this land from its rightful owners, the Palestinians?

  8. Accentitude on May 19, 2013, 8:51 am

    I was covering this even “Sabt al Nour” or the day of the Holy fire that is referred to in the article. It was strange seeing Israeli military and civilian police with their automatic rifles walking around inside the church showing complete disregard for the sanctity of this holy site. It was a really disturbing scene.

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