Churches of the Holy Land against the extension of a park to the Mount of Olives
Nationalist groups and settlers, including the City of David foundation, are behind the INPA project, which would give Israel direct control over an area with historic Christian places of worship like the Church of the Nations. For Christian leaders, this “brutal measure" violates the sites’ "sacred character” and the status quo in the pursuit of “political and ideological considerations”.
Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – The Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) plans to extend the Jerusalem Walls National Park (which dates back to the 1970s) to the Mount of Olives.
The heads of Christian Churches in the Holy Land express "gravest concern and unequivocal objection" to Plan 101-0674788, a project defined by many experts as unprecedented since it will include Church-owned land and Christian holy sites in East Jerusalem
“The Mt. of Olives is one of the holiest sites for Christians” and is “visited by millions of pilgrims every year,” reads the letter to Israel’s Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg, signed by the Custos of the Holy land Francesco Patton, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III and the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian
"Our Churches work relentlessly to preserve the sacred character of the mountain and its accessibility to pilgrims and visitors,” the letter goes on to say. However, in recent years, "various entities” have sought to “minimize, not to say eliminate any non-Jewish characteristics of the Holy City,” with the aim of changing “the Status Quo of this holy mountain.”
After the failure of various attempts to achieve this goal because of the Churches working together; Israeli authorities are now trying to advance “a plan to declare the vast past parts of the mountain as a national park.”
Officially, the plan comes from the INPA, but Christian leaders believe that “it was put forward and is being orchestrated, advanced and promoted by entities whose apparent sole purpose is to confiscate and nationalize one of the holiest sites for Christianity and alter its nature.”
Such a “brutal measure [. . .] constitutes a direct and premeditated attack on the Christians in the Holy Land, on the churches and on their ancient, internationally guaranteed rights in the Holy City” and “appears to serve an ideological agenda”.
According to the Times of Israel, the plan would not deprive Christians of their property, but would grant the Israeli government authority over the Palestinian area and lands, as well as religious sites, including the Church of All Nations (Basilica of the Agony), near the Garden of Gethsemane.
Behind Israel’s environmental agency, groups of settlers and nationalist factions are trying to boost the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem, like in the disputed neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
The goal is part of a broader strategy to expand Jewish control over the city by surrounding the old city; this, in turn, is fuelling tensions between Israel and Church leaders, which are already strained. In fact, Christian leaders recently spoke out attacks by radical Jewish groups approved by Israeli authorities.
The expansion (see map) would include the Mount of Olives together with parts of the Kidron and Ben Hinnom valleys.
The Jerusalem municipality was supposed to discuss the matter on 10 April (Palm Sunday), but the issue was then brought forward to 2 March.
An INPA spokesperson explains that the natural park status allows for greater conservation and improvement in the area, with cleaning and reforestation initiatives, thanks also to the support of the City of David foundation.
In an attempt to reassure the Holy See about the project, it "will not be carried out without the involvement of all interested parties including, of course, the churches in the area". However, the involvement of the City of David foundation, which has a nationalist agenda for East Jerusalem, is precisely a cause of concern.
For the Foundation, attacks against the project are designed to keep “Jerusalem in a state of neglect and squalor in order to bolster their narrative that Jews and Arabs cannot benefit together under Israeli sovereignly in all of Jerusalem.”
Conversely, Danny Seidemann, a Jerusalem expert and founder of the left-wing Terrestrial Jerusalem watchdog, noted: “The motivations underlying the scheme have nothing to do with preservation” but are based on settlers’ expansionist plans “along with a government that willingly does their bidding”.
Church leaders end their appeal acknowledging that the INPA is an "important Authority" and that it should not be used for ulterior motives or personal purposes. For this reason, they urge the Minister for the Protection of the Environment, whose department is in charge of the INPA, to “withdraw this plan” and “take all the necessary measures to ensure that the INPA fulfils its mandate far from any political and ideological considerations that are not strictly linked to its mission,” which is “the promotion and protection of nature.”