Christians squeezed in struggle for Holy City

Israel/ land grab threat

IN THE face of resolute resistance from the Vatican, the Israeli government last week dropped plans to confiscate vineyards and olive groves from a monastery south of Jerusalem in order to build a road to an Israeli settlement. It was the latest skirmish in a growing battle between the Christian churches and Israel over the fate of the Holy City and its surroundings.

"The Israelis would not have retreated like this if the land had been owned by anybody else," said a member of the Greek Orthodox community in Jerusalem enviously. Earlier in the week the Vatican had summoned the Israeli ambassador to protest about the confiscation of property belonging to the Cremisan monastery on a hilltop between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Inside the red-roofed monastic building, Father Giorgio, an Italian priest of the Salesian order, said he still felt the shock of seeing reports in the Israeli and Italian press that the monastery might lose land the monks had farmed for more than 100 years. Cremisan, famous for wine, is sandwiched between the Israeli settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo. Settlers in Har Gilo want a new road so that they can drive to Jerusalem without passing through the Palestinian village of Beit Jallah.

With land confiscations in Jerusalem being debated by the UN Security Council on Friday night, the Israeli government wanted to avoid more bad publicity and abandoned its plans for Cremisan. The incident is only one sign of increasing tensions between the Christian churches and Israel, at the heart of which is the fate of the Old City of Jerusalem, where Christians have jealously guarded their rights since before the Crusades.

When Israel captured the Old City behind its Ottoman walls in 1967 it bulldozed the Moorish Quarter in front of the western Wailing Wall and reclaimed the Jewish quarter, from which Jews were driven in 1948. But the most threatening changes came under the right-wing Likud government, when Ariel Sharon supported such settler groups as Ateret-Kohanim (Crown of the Priest) taking over houses in the Muslim quarter.

In 1990 they expanded settlement to the Christian quarter, taking over St John's Hospice, a large building on three floors less than 200 yards from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. "This was done in the form of a paramilitary operation," said a church official. "Churches began to come togethor in the face of the threat." An Israeli government commission subsequently found that the takeovers were often illegal and used government funds. In almost all cases a tenant was paid a large sum of money - in the case of the St John's Hospice it may have been $2m - and then left the country for the US or Canada. Owners say neither courts not police would support them in getting their property back.

Many streets in the Old City show signs of the struggle. In Khalidiye Street most of the windows have iron grilles to keep out petrol bombs. In the Via Dolorosa - down which Jesus carried the Cross - an Israeli company funded by the government is excavating a tunnel to allow tourists coming from the western Wall to emerge in the Muslim quarter.

Christians in the Old City say they feel menaced for two reasons. First, the Labour government, in power since 1992, has failed to remove any of the settlements, despite its own commission's verdict that they are illegal. Secondly, they expect Likud to win the election next year and start using public money again to squeeze them out.

Confidence in the peace process is diminishing fast, but if it does revive the Christian leaders want to have a say in the final status of Jerusalem.

Christian unity in Jerusalem has been limited in the past and the churches were better known for their furious quarrels. Ethiopian monks have a monastery on the roof the Holy Sepulchre to which they were expelled by the Copts. Father Jerry Murphy-O'Connor, an authority on Jerusalem, says that the fact that all rights to the Holy Places are based on precedent and preserving the status quo means that "you cannot afford to give ground or be understanding". But present-day divisions between the two main churches - Orthodox and Roman Catholic - are rooted more in the politics of the 1990s. The Orthodox object strongly to Catholic missionary activity in traditionally Orthodox Russia and to the Vatican backing for Catholic Croatia against Orthodox Serbia in the Balkan war.

For all these differences the Christians have put extraordinary efforts into holding on to the 40 per cent of the land in the Old City which they own. Armenians say they thwarted a plot to take over a street in their quarter using $4m raised by Ariel Sharon in the US. But the number of Christians is falling. All but five of the shops selling religious ornaments in Christian Quarter Street are rented out to Muslims.

Jerusalem, claimed as a capital by Israelis and Palestinians, remains the most combustible issue in the Middle East conflict. In 1990 Palestinians, fearing the Dome of the Rock was threatened by Jewish extremists, poured through the gates from the Muslim quarter on to the Haram al-Sharif where the shrine stands. Seventeen were killed by Israeli soldiers.

Hatreds run deep. "It is dangerous here to say you have good relations with everyone," says Father Giorgio sadly. "The Israelis think that means you are too close to the Palestinians and the Palestinians think you are too close to the Israelis."

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