Reopening of the Holy Sepulchre is “a source of great joy”, says Custos of the Holy Land
Leaders of the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian clergy reopened the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem last Wednesday after Israel suspended a controversial tax plan and property legislation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat agreed to form a government committee to “formulate a solution” and negotiate with church officials in response to the unprecedented Christian decision to close the Church.
The Custos of the Holy Land, Fr Francesco Patton, said that the reopening of the Holy Sepulchre was “a source of great joy” and that this event demonstrated the “deep unity” of different Christian communities in Jerusalem.
“We made an agreement with the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos, and with the Armenian Patriarch Manougian and their representatives. T his initiative is very rare and unusual: the closing of the Holy Sepulchre,” Patton said.
“In fact, I would say that this initiative showed a profound unity not only between the three communities that run the Holy Sepulchre but also with the rest of the ecclesial communities present here in Jerusalem. The rest of the churches expressed their closeness, solidarity and unity with us, and I must say that this is very positive,” he said.
“We felt very strongly the closeness of the local Christian community who understood very well that it was not about defending the economic interests of one church or another but protecting the life of the Christian community here in Jerusalem,” he continued.
“All the churches are united, so this shows something is very wrong,” said Salim Munayer, head of the Musalaha reconciliation ministry in Jerusalem. It is an unbelievable step, though Christians in the West have a hard time understanding.”
Fr Patton also said that “many people from all over the world have sent us messages, evidently some of them a bit critical, but I must say that in the vast majority of cases the messages expressed closeness, understanding, solidarity and also prayers.”
Fr Patton recalled that the decision to close the church of the Holy Sepulchre was a response to two problems: “the proposed discriminatory law to undermine the right to property of churches and this initiative of the City Council which was aimed at disrupting the ‘Status Quo’, on the one hand and also aimed at attacking our economic ability to serve the small local Christian community.”
The Jerusalem municipality had frozen church accounts and Barkat had stated that Jerusalem’s churches owed more than $180 million in taxes on church-owned commercial properties. Meanwhile, proposed legislation had threatened to complicate the churches’ ability to sell their properties.
“When there was this first important gesture of the Prime Minister to establish a commission that allows dialogue and suspend these two hostile initiatives, we also made an agreement with the reopening schedule,” which occurred in the early hours of February 27.
Now suspended, these actions were contrary to the historic agreement between churches and the various civil authorities which ruled Jerusalem, said Bishop Sani Azar of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. He closed its Church of the Redeemer for one day in solidarity, pending consultations with sister churches in Jerusalem.
Fr Patton said: “Now we must wait for the meeting with the minister so that we can establish this kind of dialogue together with him.”
“Personally, I am in favour of dialogue and also because of my Christian and Franciscan spirituality I do not like to fight. I prefer to dialogue and be able to understand the reasons of our small Christian community here,” he concluded.