Middle East | 27 April 2022

Israel/Palestinian territories: Tensions in the run-up to Easter in Jerusalem

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On Monday 11 April 2022, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem issued a statement ahead of the "Holy Fire" celebration on the Saturday preceding Easter Sunday. Eastern Orthodox Christians follow the Julian calendar, with Easter falling on 24 April this year. The Patriarchate denounced a decision by the Israeli authorities allowing only one thousand Christians to attend the Saturday celebration in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and only 500 people to enter the Old City, stating: For many years, participating in prayers and even having access to churches in the Old City, especially during Easter holidays, has become very difficult for our congregations and our people in general, due to police unilaterally enforced restrictions and its violence against believers who insist on exercising their natural divine right to worship. The Patriarchate also said it would not compromise "its right to provide spiritual services" and encouraged its congregations to participate in all the Easter rituals and celebrations. The church leadership of the Armenian Orthodox church, the Greek Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic Custos of the Holy Land wrote a letter to Israeli President Herzog a week later asking him to intervene and get the gathering limits lifted (Jerusalem Post, 19 April 2022). World Watch Research analyst Michael Bosch comments: "In the past, over ten thousand worshippers have participated in the Saturday celebration. Apparently, following a court decision, the Israeli authorities decided to limit the number of worshippers to 4000 in the Old City and 1800 inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for reasons of public security following a stampede at a Jewish holy site on Mount Meron in northern Israel in 2021 that left 45 people dead (Haaretz, 23 April 2022). The restriction on numbers might also be a reaction to the recent clashes around the al-Aqsa mosque and the rising Israeli-Palestinian tension in the Old City (Haaretz, 22 April 2022). However, no major incident has occurred for decades during the Holy Fire celebration, and attendance has never reached the 100,000 level as in the Jewish festival stampede mentioned above." Michael Bosch continues: "Reports on social media stated that during the Saturday in question local Christians in particular were being halted at police barricades around the Old City, while foreign Christians were allowed to pass through (Twitter, 23 April 2022). According to other Palestinian accounts on social media, several dozen Christians broke through barricades set up by Israeli police (Twitter, 23 April 2022). It remains unclear how many Christians actually attended the ceremony in the end, but it is clear that thousands were hindered. Many Palestinian Christians from the West Bank and Gaza are anyway not allowed to travel to Jerusalem due to Israel"s permit system. Hence, this unprecedented step by the Israeli authorities is viewed by Palestinian Christians as being a measure to limit the celebration of their Christian heritage and religious freedom, while also violating the status quo (Christian Media Centre, 6 February 2019)." Michael Bosch adds: "In such a situation, the major churches and Palestinian Christians find themselves once again opposing the Israeli authorities. Earlier friction between the Israeli authorities and the churches included an annulled plan to levy council tax on church properties (Haaretz, 7 February 2018), the contested takeover of Greek Orthodox Church properties by a Jewish settler organization (Haaretz, 27 March 2022) and a more recent plan to expand a public park on church-owned land (Times of Israel, 28 February 2022)."


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