By Dr. Elias Akleh
Greek Orthodox Christian celebrations of Saturday’s Holy Fire and Sunday’s Easter in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem late April were violated and spoiled by aggressive interruptions of Israeli army and police. Instead of Christian worshippers, armed Israeli soldiers crowded the entrance to the Church. Instead of lighted candles, police batons were raised. Instead of musical bands playing their instruments, Israeli soldiers brandished their automatic weapons, and instead of celebrating, Palestinian Christians were confronted by Israeli police thugs, were beaten, and many were arrested.
Since the early hours of the day hundreds of armed Israeli forces descended on the old city of Jerusalem, erected steel barriers closing its gates, established checkpoints within the city’s narrow streets leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and installed closed captioned video cameras to monitor worshippers. The Old City was, again, under occupation by Israeli military and police. Palestinian Christian worshippers from West Bank, from Gaza Strip, from 1948 occupied Palestinian cities, and even local Jerusalemite Palestinian Christians were denied access to the church of the Holy Sepulcher and to the St. Jacob Church to celebrate Easter. They were told that they had to obtain a military permit in order pray in the church. Many Christian worshippers, who insisted on performing their religious rights free from any military restrictions as they had done throughout the many past generations, tried to force their way through the Israeli barriers, but were met with savage beating, with tear gassing, and with arrest.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate denounced the Israeli measures denying Christian
worshippers access to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Official spokesman to the
Patriarchate father Issa Misleh said the Patriarchate denounces the measures taken by the
Israeli security forces against Christian worshippers during Holy Saturday celebrations.
Father Misleh said, “The manner in which the Israeli police officers dealt with worshippers heading to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Greek Orthodox Monastery to perform religious duties has gone beyond limits. Thousands of worshippers where forbidden to walk in the streets of the old city and many of them, including women and elderly civilians, were physically assaulted.”
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, himself, criticized the Israeli suppressive measures stating: “I refuse such actions against my congregation. The Greek Orthodox Church will cooperate with the rest of the Churches in joint action to put a stop to what happened today and to guarantee the Religious freedom for the people”. Church officials explained that praying is the right of all the people and no one has the right to prevent worshippers from conducting their ritual and religious duties especially in the City of Jerusalem.
The following press release was issued by different local Christian organizations criticizing the measures taken by the Israeli forces during the religious celebration, where Christians were harassed, singled out and prevented from worshipping freely in violation of the “Status Quo Law” that has existed for hundreds of years to regulate the different religious celebrations:
"The Laity Committee in the Holy Land/East Jerusalem – 26 April 2008
Christians Harassed in Jerusalem during Orthodox Easter Celebrations
During the Orthodox Easter celebrations, Palestinian Christians were denied their right to worship freely in Jerusalem; they were not allowed to arrive to the Orthodox Patriarchate where celebrations normally take place, and they were not allowed to reach the St. Jacob Cathedral near the Christian Quarter of the Old City. Since the early hours of the day, the Israeli police had set up barricades at the Gates of the Old City, and when Christian worshipers arrived the Israeli police started shouting at them and pushing them, and there was an incident when the police threw tear gas and beat the Christian worshipers with clubs.
It was obvious that Christians were singled out, compared to Jewish worshipers who arrive in hundreds of thousands to celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem. The number of Palestinian Christians who arrive to the Old City for Easter does not exceed two thousand persons, and this is a manageable number that can be accommodated. Moreover, there is no need for the police to interfere anyway, because the celebrations have been going on smoothly throughout the years, and there has never been an incident of violence or damage that warrants the closure.
The worshipers were stunned to see that a statement had been circulated by the police and posted on the wall of the Patriarchate, saying that whomever wants to worship in St. Jacob Cathedral must have a permit. This is indeed a flagrant violation of the rights of Christians to worship freely, and what makes the violation more dramatic is that it took place in Jerusalem on a holy day.
The presence of Christians in Jerusalem’s Old City, and the celebration procedures, are part of a Law that has been in place since 300 years. That law, known as the Status Quo Agreement, regulates the celebrations, and according to that Law, Christians have the right to access the Patriarchate and St. Jacob Cathedral. Preventing worshipers from entering is a violation of the Status Quo Agreement.
Such violations by the police should stop. The steps taken against Christians are illegal. We call upon the Consulates, Embassies, Christian organizations, and human rights organizations, to intervene immediately, so the harassment of Christians in Jerusalem will stop."
Religious freedom has been restricted by the Israeli military since its illegal occupation of the city. Jerusalem, a holy city for the three major religions has been off limit to the local Muslim as well as Christian Palestinians but not to Jewish Israelis. Pictures of Muslim worshippers kneeling in prayer behind the Israeli military checkpoints have been widespread in media resources all over the globe. Christian worshippers have no better luck, unfortunately media does not capture their hardships except in the major Christian celebrations such as Easter and Christmas. Christian Palestinian Jerusalemites suffer the most because Israel is adopting a silent policy of evacuating Jerusalem from its Christian citizens to make it a Jewish-only city.
While Muslim and Christian religious freedom is severely restricted by the Israeli government, Jewish Israelis are given the ultimate religious freedom to the point of intoxication. Jewish Israeli worshippers are given free access to the narrow streets of the Old City. They rush through the streets chanting and dancing loudly without any respect to the feelings of the local citizens. They smash the goods of any open Palestinian shops. Palestinians learnt to close their shops and stick to their homes during such extravagant Jewish celebration. Israeli worshippers spend most of the day and night dancing and drinking alcohol and blatantly provoking Palestinian residents of the city.
Armed Israeli soldiers can also been seen during these Jewish religious celebrations. Yet their presence is not to secure order and peace, but to protect the extremist Jewish Israeli worshippers from any Palestinian reaction to their provocations and disturbances of peace. Palestinian Jerusalemites had barely forgotten the insulting provocations of the religiously extremist Jewish Israelis and the harassment of Israeli forces a week before during the Jewish celebration of their Passover. In contrast, Christian Palestinians are denied access to their holy places during one of their holiest day of the year.
The presence of hundreds of Israeli armed soldiers and police forces in the city is clear evidence that Jerusalem is an occupied Palestinian city. The Israeli claim of securing religious freedom to worship and to have easy access to the holy places for the followers of the three religions in the city of Jerusalem is a mere propaganda. The suppressive measures of the Israeli forces against peaceful Christian worshippers during Easter are clear contradictions to this claim. These suppressive measures indicate a deliberate form of religious persecution that stems from the extremist religious ideology of God’s chosen people and the rejection of all others (Goyims).
-Dr. Elias Akleh is an Arab writer of Palestinian descent, born in the town of Beit-Jala. Currently he lives in the US. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.