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Israel shelves contentious plan to seize Christian holy sites

This picture taken on December 20, 2021 shows a view of an Israeli flag flying near the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene atop the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. [AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images]
This picture taken on December 20, 2021 shows a view of an Israeli flag flying near the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene atop the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. [AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images]

Israel has dropped a contentious plan to nationalise large sections of the Mount of Olives, one of Christianity's holiest sites, following outcry from major church leaders in occupied Jerusalem.

The plan called for expanding the Jerusalem Walls National Park to encompass Christian holy sites on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives, which since ancient times has been a major site of pilgrimage for Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox and Protestants. Property owned by several churches in the city would have been seized under the plan.

The Armenian, Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches petitioned Israel's environmental protection minister, Tamar Zandber, whose department oversees the Parks Authority. They protested the plan, describing it as an attempt to "eliminate, any non-Jewish Characteristics of the Holy City by attempting to alter the Status Quo in this holy mountain."

General counsel of the Catholic Church's Custody of the Holy Land, Farid Jubran, was reported saying that by making an area that includes church property part of a national park it was "putting the control in the hands of people who have no other agenda but to wipe off any non-Jewish characteristic on this mountain."

Around the same time a visiting delegation of Democrats from the US House of Representatives also expressed their concerns over the plan. They raised the potential Israeli takeover of Christian holy sites with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a meeting last week.

The plan was slated to come before the Jerusalem Municipality's Local Planning and Construction Committee for preliminary approval on 2 March. The hearing was originally scheduled to take place on 10 April but was recently moved up. That will no longer be the case.

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Yesterday Israel's Nature and Parks Authority said that it was backing down from a contentious plan. The authority said it has "no intention of advancing the plan in the planning committee, and it is not ready for discussion without coordination and communication with all relevant officials, including the churches, in the area."

The plan was also sharply rebuked by rights group and activists. They claimed that the plan as an attempt by Israeli authorities to marginalise Palestinian residents and increase the Jewish religious and national significance of the Mount of Olives.

A joint statement by rights groups Bimkom, Emek Shaveh, Ir Amim and Peace Now said the plan to extend the Jerusalem Walls National Park to include sections of the Mount of Olives was part of "Various mechanisms used by Israel in east Jerusalem to entrench its sovereignty, to marginalize non-Jewish presence and to prevent much needed development of Palestinian neighborhoods hereby increasing the pressure to push them out of the Old City basin."

Israel's decision to backtrack over the takeover Christian Holy sites 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 11 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.

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