Holy Fire ceremony, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
“[T]heir hatred of Christianity is the real thing, which sometimes bursts to surface.”
When Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the graffiti sprayed on walls of The Church of the Dormition in Jerusalem over the weekend my ears pricked up, not for what he said, but for what he didn’t. The Israeli government has been curiously silent over a much more offensive action — the attack on Palestinian Christian worshipers trying to reach The Holy Fire ceremony at The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jesus’s Tomb, in the Old City of Jerusalem during one of the most sacred days on the Christian calendar.
This is not going away anytime soon.
The Reverend Gradye Parsons, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has sent a letter ”expressing concern over the recent violations of the rights and the physical abuse of Orthodox and other Christian worshippers in Jerusalem” to the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, the Reverend Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook:
“The Holy Fire ceremony is one of the most important religious occasions in the life of Orthodox Christians. The ceremony takes place on the eve of the Orthodox celebration of Easter when a lamp in the tomb of Jesus at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is kindled. The flame is immediately passed by candles to thousands of worshippers. At this time an olive lamp is also lit and quickly transferred to the West Bank town of Bethlehem. The flame is then passed to other Orthodox Christian communities throughout the world.
In recent years access to this ceremony and other religious events taking place in the Old City of Jerusalem has become increasingly difficult for Christians living in the area. West Bank and Gaza Palestinians have extremely limited access to these sites and Jerusalem Palestinians are finding it harder to gain entry to places of worship even on the holiest days in their calendar. Access is controlled by a permit system administered by the Israeli government, a system which has been described as arbitrary and unduly restrictive of freedom of worship.
This year thousands of Israeli police officers were deployed on the eve of Orthodox Easter to provide security for the massive celebration. The security, however, became increasingly aggressive and a number of worshippers and clergy were beaten as they tried to make their way closer to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
This year’s actions are part of a pattern of increasingly aggressive actions by Israeli security forces dating back a decade or more. The US State Department International Religious Freedom Report, found ‘[p]referential treatment [was given] to Jews celebrating Passover and to international visitors making pilgrimages when the authorities enacted restrictions that impeded the activities of local Christians celebrating Easter. Jerusalem Christians had to pass through four police checkpoints before reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; according to Christian advocates, pepper spray was used indiscriminately at the various checkpoints.’
The Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem have called for an end to such restrictive practices, demanding full access to the Holy sites during the Holy Weeks in both Christian calendars. Members of the local Palestinian community were even more passionate in their demands, with a Facebook group identified as Palestinian Christians calling on church leaders to ‘[s]ay a word of truth to the Israeli authorities. Let Christians reach freely their Church on the day of their feast.’”
Videos surfaced of Christian worshipers being brutally beaten. My curiosity has not dissipated. What policy, what audacity prompted the brutal efforts to prevent Palestinians from reaching The Church of the Holy Sepulcher on Holy Saturday? And the press has been curiously silent about an investigation that is allegedly taking place as a result of the violence which prompted Israel to issue an apology to Egypt. Quite curiously the Jerusalem police feigned clueless. But can one simply disappear the presence of thousands of security officers manning barriers blocking all entrances to the Old City?
After several attempts to elicit on the record accounts from Palestinian Christians or be interviewed about what came down that day it became apparent a chill had set in, albeit off the record I have emails testifying worshipers were treated like “animals”.
Hence I wrote a followup email to Yusef Daher from the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre, to find out if there had, thus far, been any explanation forthcoming from this investigation. No, there has not. Then I speculated perhaps there was a media blackout surrounding the violence of the day. He wrote me back, on the record:
You are absolutely right
Israel and Israeli media just blacked on this
Now they are giving Christians permits for 3 months to shut them up. Christians who never had permits are getting. Imagine Bethlehem Parish applied for 1700 permits ..they received 2000!!
and the story goes on
Wow, 2000 permits. Is somebody is trying to make this go away quietly?
Why did Netanyahu make a public apology about graffiti sprayed on The Church of the Dormition in Jerusalem and an apology to Egypt, while no apology for thousands of Palestinian Christian worshipers been forthcoming?
This is not over. I’m looking forward to a response from the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom to the letter sent by the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Maybe we can finally start getting some answers.
More from the letter:
While we wish to call these particular abridgements of religious freedom to your attention, we also want to express our growing concern over what appears to be the use of military permits to control/restrict the movement of visitors, including our fellow church-workers, many of whom have come to work with partners not only in Israel, but also in the West Bank. We have reported evidence that they have been required to sign affidavits that aver that they will not enter Area A or any area under Israeli occupational control without a special military permit, issued by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. Some who have signed the statement have been sent on their way without being fully informed as to how to get the military permit that will allow them to enter the West Bank and, as a result, are not able to do so.
These draconian measures not only create anxiety on the part of visitors and religious workers. They create a substantial barrier to the effort of members of the Christian community to fulfill their missions of humanitarian aid, compassion and support for our Palestinian partners.
We shall be most grateful if your office will inquire into these matters, which seem to us to be an egregious violation of religious freedom.
cc. Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.