The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem has denounced a new ‘Church Lands’ bill proposing to allow the state to confiscate church land that has been leased to third parties as a “shocking assault” on the history and presence of Christians in the Holy Land.
Describing the bill as “catastrophic” and as a threat to peace in the region, Theophilos III said today (2 November) that the “Status Quo” rule that has guaranteed the rights of Christians to live alongside people of other faiths in Jerusalem and its Old City for centuries is in “grave danger”.
The Patriarch addressed journalists following a meeting with Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster. Currently on an international tour where he is meeting with senior religious leaders, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch said he has been “mandated” by all church leaders in the Holy Land to “raise awareness of the challenges we are facing as a Christian community in Jerusalem.”
The tour comes after 40 members of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) signed a proposed bill in July that, the Orthodox Church argues, would restrict the rights of the churches to deal freely and independently with their lands and would threaten their confiscation by the state.
“This bill is an assault on the freedom and independence of our Churches which have served and supported Christians in the Holy Land for two millennia. Were it to be passed, this bill would be in clear violation of the “Status Quo” and arguably, numerous international treaties,” Theophilos III said in a statement read in English.
The Patriarch also said that “radical settlers” had intensified their underhanded actions of expropriation of Church property. Referring to the “Jaffa Gate” case where the Israeli District Court in Jerusalem ruled recently against the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate over the unauthorised sale of two hotels near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City as an example, he said “radical settlers are working to push Christians out of Jerusalem.”
Theophilos III said he had received the support of all the church leaders in the Holy Land, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Patriarch Bartholomew and His Holiness Pope Francis. He added that he had been received “most warmly” by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, as well as Cardinal Vincent Nichols.
“We are now calling on more religious leaders and Heads of State to support our righteous cause,” he said.
“Even as we face these unprecedented and shocking assaults on Our history and integrity, we assure Our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land that we shall remain true to our mission to be the guardians and the servants of the Holy Tomb of Christ and of all the Holy Sites,” concluded the statement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently in the UK on a visit hosted by Prime Minister, Mrs May.
A spokesperson for the Patriarch today confirmed the timing of the two visits was coincidental.
Mrs May invited Netanyahu to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour agreement, with a visit to the UK back in February. The Balfour Declaration, a public statement issued by the British government during World War I, announced support for the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, gives a statement on 2 November