Israel opens the way to squatting in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem | International

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Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III (center) with other Christian leaders, on March 29, outside the Petra Hotel in Jerusalem.HAZEM BADER (AFP)

After occupying the historic Old City of Jerusalem since 1967, Israel has just opened the way to occupation in the neighborhood that houses the holy places of Christianity. Jewish settlers from the extremist Ateret Cohanin movement, which advocates the Judaization of the entire Holy City, have seized part of the emblematic Petra Hotel building, owned by the Orthodox Patriarchate (a branch of the predominant Christian church in the Middle East) in the Jaffa gate, main access to the Christian district.

The radical Jewish group acquired the property in 2005, through a shell company in a focal paradise, from Patriarch Irineo I, who was deposed shortly after being accused of corruption. His successor, Theophilus III, has been fighting since then before the Israeli courts to recover the Petra hotel and other properties alienated through alleged bribes. The rest of the Christian churches in Jerusalem second him in defending the fragile religious balance in a walled enclosure divided into four districts: Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian.

“The settlers forcibly entered the so-called small Petra hotel, a wing of the building that houses 15 of the 35 rooms of the establishment and other dependencies. The police now guard the entrance, and instead of expelling the squatters, it protects them,” explains Abu Walid Dajani, whose Palestinian family has run the nearby Imperial Hotel for 75 years, also sold to Ateret Cohadim by the outlaw Irenaeus, now demoted to a monk. “Although there is a ruling that recognizes their right to property, they do not have an eviction order. The ruling is not yet final and is pending review, just as it happens with the Imperial hotel”, Dajani specifies.

Both hotels, which had been closed since the start of the pandemic, reopened last month with the arrival of the first Christian pilgrims in two years. “We have a good occupancy level at Easter, but almost all visitors from Russia and Ukraine have canceled the reservations they had for next week,” laments the veteran hotelier, referring to Orthodox celebrations that are governed by their own calendar.

Jerusalem’s Holy Week rituals began on Holy Thursday with the foot-washing ceremony in the Cenacle, where Christian tradition places the Last Supper, a site managed by the Directorate for Religious Affairs of the Israeli Ministry of the Interior. On its ground floor are the tomb of the biblical King David and a synagogue for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

A new Jewish settlement

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The Israeli NGO Peace Now describes as “a new Jewish settlement” in the Christian quarter the situation of fait accompli created after the partial occupation of the Petra hotel. Despite the request for the urgent expulsion of the Israeli occupants urged by the Orthodox Patriarchate and the Palestinian tenants of the building, the Israeli justice ruled on Thursday in favor of the settlers. A judge dismissed the injunction to evict them and returned the plaintiffs to the starting line to assert their right again in court.

The long week of the Passover holiday lies ahead, which begins this Friday. As in the controversial expulsion of dozens of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, promoted by another organization of Jewish settlers, the Government of Israel washes its hands and refrains from intervening in what it considers “real estate disputes between individuals ”.

“The irruption of the settlers requires an immediate intervention by the Government,” Paz Now claimed in a statement released on Tuesday. “Although the sale has been kosher [conforme a la ley]Israel must preserve the status quo in the Old City and prevent the emergence of Jewish settlements”, abounds the pacifist organization, which wonders about “the role of the police, converted into a tool in the hands of the settlers”.

Facade of the Petra hotel, at the Jaffa gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Facade of the Petra hotel, at the Jaffa gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.HAZEM BADER (AFP)

Patriarch Theophilus III demands the eviction of the squatters of Ateret Cohanim while all ongoing legal proceedings are resolved. The Custodian of the Holy Land, the Franciscan, Francesco Patton, and the rest of the leaders of the Jerusalem churches have also conspired in a joint declaration against the “illegal occupation” of ecclesial properties by “Israeli extremists” who put “in danger of extinction” the religious balance. In 1948, when the State of Israel was created after the partition of the British mandate over Palestine, Christians represented 11% of the population. Today they barely add up to 2% of the census in the Jewish State and the Palestinian territories.

In the midst of Jewish and Christian Passover and Muslim Ramadan; of a wave of attacks that has hit Israeli cities, and of lethal military interventions in the West Bank, the occupation of settlers in the Christian quarter adds fuel to the fire of interreligious tension. The Islamist movement Hamas has threatened an armed response if groups of Messianic Jews carry out their plan this Friday to offer animal sacrifices, according to the Talmudic ritual abandoned almost two millennia ago, on the Esplanade of the Mosques of the Old City, third holiest place in Islam, where the Hebrew tradition places the ancient temple of Jerusalem, the sanctum sanctorum of Judaism

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