As the Holy Week began, Church leaders in Jerusalem's Old City faced problems with Jewish "radicals" who are infiltrating the Christian quarter and threatening a fragile religious balance in the ancient Holy City.
Jerusalem's Old City is split into historic Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters.
Earlier last week, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus III highlighted what he called "a major problem" to the international press.
The patriarch charged that hardline Jewish settlers, who have been pushing to capture properties of Palestinian families, are also waging a 'campaign for control ' of Christian-owned land.
The Israeli Right-wing group Ateret Cohanim strives to "Judaise" east Jerusalem—a Palestinian sector that according to the UN has been illegally annexed by Israel. It does so by purchasing real estate through front companies and then moving Jewish settlers in.
"Those radicals are driven by their ideology," Theophilus III says. "Their ideology is the syndrome of messianism when they claim 'we want to redeem the Holy Land from the profanes'."
"Jerusalem also has her Christian character, and that is what is threatened," reported AFP in a report published on April 14 (Holy Thursday).
The 'Little Petra Hotel' has been the subject of an 18-year legal battle between the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and Ateret Cohanim. It is an Old City hostel at the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Christian Quarter.
In 2004, Ateret Cohanim bought the leases to Petra's first floor and two other properties owned by the patriarchate in the Old City through three foreign private companies.
It is a long complex legal wrangle over the ownership that also involved bribes paid to corrupt Church officials, according to the Middle East Monitor.
The Greek Orthodox Church claims that on Sunday, March 27, a group of settlers took over part of the Petra Hotel by "breaking".
On that evening, dozens of Israeli policemen and members of Ateret Cohanim moved into the first floor of the hotel, near Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate, according to 'The Middle East Eye website.
Patriarch Theophilus III said the Israeli government "promised that they will try their best to deal with this issue, and put pressure on those radical groups to get out. But, after more than two weeks, the settlers are still there," according to the report.
He reflected, "It seems that the state doesn't have the power or the will to (put pressure) on those people."
Hagit Ofran, spokesperson for Peace Now, a group that opposes radical settlers said the dispute is "a big, big drama". The Petra Hotel is such a strategic place at the entrance to the Christian Quarter, a huge compound where they can bring hundreds of settlers."
She warned that if Ateret Cohanim succeeds, this would "change the whole character of the Old City—and of course of the Christian Quarter."
She said the government was only doing the bare minimum—and even "protecting the settlers" with its police force, which has failed to dislodge them.
About 300 Jewish settlers already live in the Christian Quarter, says the AFP report.
Park plan on Mount of Olives
Israel plans to expand a park on the Mount of Olives, home to several prominent churches. It will encroach on land belonging to Christian institutions.
The three communities concerned—Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Franciscan—sent a strongly worded letter to the authorities in February.
"In recent years, we cannot help but feel that various entities are seeking to minimize, not to say eliminate, any non-Jewish characteristics of the Holy City by attempting to alter the status quo on the holy mountain," they wrote.
The letter charged that "after their attempts failed, they resorted to statutory powers, by advancing a plan to declare vast parts of the mountain as a national park".
The government temporarily withdrew the project from its agenda.
The churches have voiced alarm about acts of vandalism and anti-Christian aggression, arguing the problem extends beyond the ancient heart of Jerusalem.
Father Nikodemus Schnabel of the Benedictine community on Mount Zion, adjacent to the Old City, said that "this is a concern, that Israel has turned a blind eye".
His Abbey of the Dormition has been the target of acts of vandalism which have multiplied in recent months.
He said he sees "a lack of will" by the authorities to tackle the phenomenon of "anti-Christian hate crime".
Father Nikodemus says that Jerusalem is unique because of its religious diversity, and pointed out that this year the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, Jewish Passover, and Easter are being observed simultaneously.
He said that Jerusalem is 'boring' if it were only Jewish, only Christian, or only Muslim.
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