The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is one of the most sacred places in the world for Christianity. Yet Israel does not officially recognize it as a holy site, a new report reveals.
Last Saturday the Eastern Churches marked Holy Fire, the Saturday after Good Friday, when Easter begins. Thousands of pilgrims visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem to watch what they believe is the annual miracle of fire in Jesus Christ’s tomb in the Sepulchre chapel. The place was packed, and all the churches throughout the entire Old City were blocked due to the overcrowding.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the most sacred places in the world for Christianity. Yet Israel does not officially recognize it as a holy site. Why? Because the State of Israel does not recognize any holy site that is not Jewish in the territories under its control, as is demonstrated in a new report called Selectively Sacred: Holy Sites in Jerusalem and its Environs, published by the Emek Shaveh organization, written by Attorney Eitay Mack.
Neither Israeli law nor international law clearly defines what constitutes a holy site. Not even the Protection of Holy Places Law that was legislated after the occupation of the West Bank and annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 – ironically, in order to placate international criticism of the annexation. However, the law doesn’t offer a clear definition of what a holy site is, it only determines that “The Holy Places shall be protected from desecration and any other violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their feelings with regard to those places.”
How does a place become holy?
Israel loves to boast about the freedom of worship it enables all religions in the territories under its control. But without clear criteria, the directives are, at best, a bad joke. Tens of thousands of Muslims who are routinely prevented from entering the Al Aqsa Mosque for Friday prayers under varying circumstances can attest to that.
In 1981, as “Basic Law: Jerusalem Capital of Israel was being legislated, Israel presented a list of 16 holy sites as part of its Regulations for the Preservation of Holy Places for Jews. All of them were strictly for Jews, including, among other things, the Shimon Hatzadik Cave (in East Jerusalem’s contested Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood), Yad Avshalom, and of course, the Western Wall and any over ground or underground passage whose entrance goes through the plaza.
“The fact that according to law, anything that leads to the Western Wall – and not the Wall itself – is holy, is outrageous,” says Yonatan Mizrachi, an archaeologist with Emek Shaveh. “It means all the tunnels leading to the Western wall are holy too. There are digs being done all the time under the Palestinian village of Silwan, so one day, they will declare these tunnels a holy site to Jews as well? What will happen to those Palestinian houses?”
“Israel is playing it both ways. When it is suits its interests, it’s a holy place. But digging in a holy place requires a decision by a special ministerial committee, so when it is suddenly not so convenient it becomes an archaeological site and they forego the entire binding legal process. The bottom line is, it is a political tool.”
The State decision to only recognize Jewish sites as holy was tested in the High Court of Justice in a petition by Adalah in 2004 against the negligence and desecration of Muslim holy sites. The Court rejected the petition claiming there is no need to declare a site as “a holy site” in law in order to apply the law’s essential directives. In other words, the State told Adalah, “just trust the State.” In any case, the list was not expanded. All the attempts to promote a bill in the Knesset to formally recognize holy sites for Muslims have failed. From the report:
As stated, with the exception of the 16 places specified in the Regulations for the Preservation of Holy Places for Jews, the laws and regulations of the State of Israel grant no formal recognition of additional holy places for Jews or for other religions. This intentional ambiguity has enabled the state authorities to channel budgetary resources, and handle operation and management as they please, and in so doing to relate to some places as holy to other religions, and other places which are also holy to other religions as holy to Jews only. This has been the practice since the establishment of the state in 1948, and to an even greater degree, from 1967 onwards, when places that were also holy to other religions underwent a process of appropriation by the state and were transferred to Jewish possession.
According to Mizrachi, “The holy places law enabled deeming as many sites as possible holy strictly for Jews. Take for example Nabi Samuel, which Israel has turned into a holy site for Jews alone. Despite the fact that Muslims are permitted to enter, officially it is recognized as a holy site only for Jews. It’s absurd.”
The saga doesn’t end here. According to a 1989 Knesset decision, a governmental organization called “The National Center for Developing Holy Places” was founded. According to a 2012 report of its board of directors, the center handles nearly 130 sites “recognized as holy to the Jewish people from generations past.”
When the Ministry of Religion was dissolved in 2003, the organization fell under the authority of the Ministry of Tourism, which in 2012 allocated NIS 19 million to maintain and operate the sites. But even as the Court stated, a site does not have to be formally recognized as holy in order to received budgets and support, but in practice, this list clearly gets special treatment when it comes to its budget. For example, in 2014 the Finance Committee approved the transfer of only NIS 9.6 million ($2.5 million) allocated for the support of non-Jewish ethnicities in the Interior Ministry and including the development of buildings and cemeteries for all non-Jewish religions (Muslim, Christian, Druze, Samaritan, Ahmadiyya and Bahai).
The financial angle is just one of many.
“Look, ultimately, we are a non-profit made up of archaeologists,” Mizrahi says. “Why are we dealing with holy sites? We grappled with this question, but we recognized a process in which antiquities sites were getting the status of holy sites, by the public and the system. The best example is the tunnel that goes from the Givati parking lot in Silwan’s Wadi Hilweh neighborhood, down to the foot of the Western Wall. People started sticking notes there! Here’s the thing: Israel really does treat antiquities sites as holy sites. For example Yad Avshalom – it entered the list of holy sites, but there’s nothing holy about it! What is holy about the Siloam Tunnel? It is just an aqueduct used to transport water!”
“Another interesting point is the parallel between the map of the holy sites and the separation wall. Nabi Samuel and Rachel’s Tomb are both on the list of holy sites in Jerusalem. This shows the overlap between religious and political thought; this is how the Greater Jerusalem area they fantasize about is delineated. Israel is changing the status quo in these places all the time by making them ‘holy’.”
So how absurd does this system get? Here it is summed up in a nutshell, from the report:
The Sanctification of Jeremiah’s Grotto (located near the bus stop on Sultan Suleiman Street in Jerusalem) for Jews, without its being recognized in parallel as holy to the Christians, has now enabled an infringement upon the Garden Tomb, one of the key Christian sites in Jerusalem. The area of Zedekiah’s Cave takes up 15 percent of the area of the Muslim Quarter. Thus, in the absence of formal recognition in the laws or regulation of the cave as holy to Jews, 15 percent of the underground area of the Muslim Quarter has become “holy” in Judaism through the workings of the Ministry of Religious Services and the National Center for the Development of Holy Places.
The notion of “proselytizing” parts of the most politically and religious volatile areas in Jerusalem is not new; it’s enough to look at the Judaization process Israel has been pushing for decade in Silwan in the name of archaeological findings, most of them dubious. The next time Muslims rally against the digging under their homes in the Old City, adjacent to the mosque, instead of rolling your eyes, you should read through the report.
This article was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.