Palestinian church leaders and US lawmakers have raised concerns over a controversial plan to expand a national park and to nationalise a large section of the Mount of Olives, one of Christianity's holiest sites, which since ancient times has been a major site of pilgrimage for Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox and Protestants.
The plan is slated to come before the Jerusalem municipality's Local Planning and Construction Committee for preliminary approval on 2 March, reported the Times of Israel. The hearing was originally scheduled to take place on 10 April but was recently moved up.
A visiting delegation of Democrats from the US House of Representatives have expressed their concerns over the plan as have leading church officials and rights groups who have characterised the measure as a power grab and a threat to Christian presence in the Holy Land.
US lawmakers raised the potential Israeli takeover of Christian holy sites with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a meeting last week. Apparently, Bennett, infamous for making incendiary comments about the Palestinians and is himself is an advocate of illegal Israeli settlements, did not appear familiar with the previously unpublicised plan, but he told the American delegation that he was doing everything he could to reduce tensions in occupied Jerusalem and prevent steps that might trigger new violence.
In a letter to the Israeli Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, church leaders echoed concerns raised in December of the threat of "extinction" faced by Christianity from "radical" Israeli groups.
"In recent years, we cannot help but feel that various entities are seeking to minimise, not to say eliminate, any non-Jewish Characteristics of the Holy City by attempting to alter the Status Quo in this holy mountain," said the letter sent by Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theopolis III, Catholic Church Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton and Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian.
"This is a brutal measure that constitutes a direct and premeditated attack on the Christians in the Holy Land, on the churches and their ancient, internationally guaranteed rights in the Holy City. Under the guise of protecting green spaces, the plan appears to serve an ideological agenda that denies the status and rights of Christians in Jerusalem," the letter continued.
"Regretfully, this is not the first time the INPA is playing a hostile role against the Churches and the Christian presence in the Holy Land," the letter added, commenting on the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which is promoting the project.
Their warnings of a planned takeover of the Mount of Olives follows a startling message delivered by church leaders in the run up to Christmas. "In recent years, the lives of many Christians have been made unbearable by radical local groups with extremist ideologies," said the church leaders commenting on the radical Israeli groups. "Despite two thousand years of faithful service, our presence is precarious, and our future is at risk."
Prior to Israel's creation in 1948, Palestinian Christians were the second largest religious community, making up more than eleven per cent of the total population. The waves of ethnic cleansing which the Palestinians call the Nakba ("Catastrophe") has reduced their number to its present "extinction" level.
Israel's violent capture, illegal annexation and military occupation of Jerusalem has accelerated the flight of Palestinian Christians from their country. Human rights groups have described Israel's rule over the territory as a form of apartheid under which Christian Palestinians are also treated like second and third class citizens.