Israeli politics in handling the disputes of holy places in Jerusalem

Lamīs Fāyīd  

Jerusalem is a city that is holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims. All three religions claim holy sites but because Jerusalem is so old and has been ruled in different periods by Jews, Christians and Muslims holy sites at times have been garbled up, making the sites of importance to one religion or denomination situated on top or below of that to another religion or denomination. Thus, for centuries there have struggles and tensions between adherents of different denominations who each tried to gain more influence over a site on the expense of another religion or denomination. Those struggles were directly related to pilgrims coming from the various religions and denominations concerned and pelgrims were always an important source of income. Tensions of such sites existed between Christians and Muslims, Christians and Jews, Muslims and Jews and also between different Christian denominations who sought support of different states to maintain or increase their power over specific sites and thus maintain or increase the income from pilgrims visiting these sites.

One of the most important locations of dispute is the church of the Holy Sepulchre which is said to have been built in the fourth century on the sites where Jesus was crucified and Jesus’ empty tomb. The current church is, in fact, a amalgamation of structures dating from the 4th century until today.

Ottoman Sultan Osman III tried to end the endless disputes with a decree (firman) in 1757 that prescribed that the status quo in the division of ownership and responsibilities of disputed sites would need to be maintained. Those decrees were confirmed in 1852 and 1983. The provisions of the status quo were never formally established in one single document. In 1929, however, Lionel George Archer Cust (1896-1962), a British military officer and later civil servant of the British Mandate government prepared a document titled The Status Quo in the Holy Places, which has become the standard text on the status quo of the de-facto ownership and responsibilities of various disputed sites including Dayr al-Ṣultān (Deir al-Sultan). It is called a Dayr or monastery but it is in fact a church on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre.

There is probably no single Christian location that has been so much disputed throughout the centuries as the Holy Sepulchre which serves as the headquarter of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem but several parts of the church are controlled by other denominations including the Armenian Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was founded following Coptic Orthodox missionary activities in the 5th Century which took place upon the invitation of the then king of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian church always maintained close relations with the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt. The theological foundations of both churches are therefore very similar. Relations, however, began to sour. This made Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, consecrate the first Eritrean Patriarch, abune Philippos, in 1999. The Eritrean Orthodox Church is, in fact, a break away church from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which followed Eritrean independence from Ethiopia in 1991. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has not accepted this break and Pope Shenouda’s consecration for decades and this explain the current poor relations between both churches which in turn has intensified the struggles between both churches over Dayr al-Ṣultān. 

On published photos of humiliated Coptic Orthodox monks and friars by  Israeli armed forces that made Coptologist Lamis Fayed (Lamīs Fāyīd)  write the article below for Civic Egypt. CIDT’s senior translator Jeanne Middelstaedt-Rizkallah translated the Arabic text which had been posted on October 24, 2018. 

Lamis Fayed studied Egyptology in Egypt and Coptology in Germany. She is probably the only Muslim who has studied Coptology and therefore has an excellent understanding of Coptic concerns. She was a research intern with the Center for Arab-West Understanding in 2011 and completed her M.A. in Coptic Studies at Muenster University, Germany. She now works in Germany as a researcher and translator and is a Ph.D candidate in Abrahamic Religions.

Give us Dayr al-Sultan back!

The Islamic and Christian houses of worship are not just places for the performance of prayers and rituals, but they are genuine witnesses of our uninterrupted political, spiritual, and intellectual existence in this place. Hence, no one should underestimate the importance and reverence we, Christians and Muslims, have for Jerusalem. Hence, no one should underestimate the importance and reverence we, Christians and Muslims, have for Jerusalem.

Sadat’s speech in Jerusalem [1979] has not lost its value over time, but has rather become more crucial than ever. Sadat was aware of what Jerusalem stands for in terms of religion and the veneration of its sites. Today, we cannot but recall a part of his speech in the light of the catastrophic situation the Egyptian Orthodox Dayr al-Ṣultān (Deir al-Sultan) monastery, its monks and its friars are enduring by the Israeli security forces, merely because they held a peaceful vigil [when did this take place??] in protest against the restoration the Israeli authorities want to carry out on the monastery without the prior permission of the Egyptian Church, and, above all, the monks and friars demanded the full restoration of the monastery’s lands [lands? It is situated on top of the Holy Sepulchre. Please explain what you mean by lands] after the Israeli authorities, for inexplicable reasons, had  handed it over to the Ethiopian Church. [in which year did the Israeli authorities hand Dayr al-Ṣultān to the Ethiopian church??]

We ought to realize the deep insight of Sadat, and I call on the Copts to reconsider the legacy of the past conflict between Pope Shenouda (Shinūda) and Sadat, God rest both their souls [what did Sadat say about Dayr al-Ṣultān??]. The general circumstances in the region and the declaration of Jerusalem as the political capital of Israel make us reconsider the past and formulate new visions that are consistent with the latest developments.

The crisis of the monastery worsened when last autumn [2017] one of the monastery’s roofs collapsed. As this incident occurred on a Saturday, the Copts had to wait till the next day, Sunday, to call the entities in charge of archeological activities.[1]  Thank God that no one was hurt, but things have been exacerbated urging the reopening of this sensitive case, namely the restoration and excavation of the holy sites of the Abrahamic faiths, who not only present inside Jerusalem, but in the entire region of Middle East, the abyss of these Abrahamic religions and the pathways of the prophets. As an archeologist in the first place, I closely followed up the collapse of a 400-ton boulder from the Wailing Wall a few months ago; secondly, I strongly believe in interfaith dialogues. Just for the sake of fairness, and for all those who question the unbiased opinion my article expresses, it is a fact that the excavation and restoration of holy sites represent a serious problem for the Israeli Ministry of Antiquities.

I attribute these difficulties to the loss of confidence among the followers of the three Abrahamic faiths, finally, giving the opportunity to the Israeli authorities to intervene in restoration matters that concerns an Egyptian monastery?! These restoration plans include the removal of Coptic archeological murals [how old are these?? Are there also Ethiopian murals? How old are these? Are the Coptic murals painted over the Ethiopian murals or the other way around?], a Coptic art which is the identity of the monastery. The Coptic art is very distinctive in Eastern Christian art and cannot be randomly dealt with at the risk of losing the genuine identity of the Dayr al-Ṣultān that is located in a sensitive spot, in Jerusalem, in particular after Trump declared it the capital of Israel. However, I do not intend to thematize the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Trump’s decision here.  What concerns me are the implications of that resolution on the many other Christian and Islamic holy sites. Perhaps the photos published today of humiliated Coptic monks and friars by the Israeli forces confirm that there is real concern about non-Jewish sanctities. How is Israel going to deal with the non-Jewish legacies after Jerusalem became its political capital and declaring Judaism its identity hence, erasing the Christian and Islamic identities? If the decision to transfer the capital is based on the Torah, namely getting back what was theirs 3,000 years ago, the Copts and the Egyptians have the same right when they claim their sovereignty over the monastery of Dayr al-Ṣultān based on the biblical text on the legacy of Hagar in Jerusalem! [which Biblical text you are referring to??]

This is a serious matter. If the Israeli authorities adopt the idea of dividing the land over the children of Abraham, then Egypt has the right to inherit the legacy of Hagar as mentioned in the Genesis, Old Testament [references are needed here].  In addition, there is something else that the three parties concerned might have forgotten, namely, Christian and Jewish sanctuaries in Jerusalem and in Egypt. The Jewish synagogues on Egyptian territory recently have been restored; even if the news on the restorations are not made public, we, Egyptians, are happy that the restorations of houses of worship are taking place now, and as the proverb says: better late than never. However, such restorations are the evidence of existence and of coexistence that cannot be undermined or ignored even if time has covered with dust its history. We owe the future generation the preservation of the Egyptian Jewish heritage, and not just as mere tourist attraction.

We all ought to sincerely ask ourselves how serious our claim of peaceful coexistence is? What are we teaching our future generations on the relationships with the followers of other religions? What have we left of the legacy of the Jews in Egypt except the books of history that speak of years of war and the numbers of martyrs? Through a deliberate neglect of the sanctities of the other who is different in each territory respectively, and by deploying each of their respective sanctities as tools of revenge that obliterates every bright spot that testifies that there existed a different reality of genuine coexistence, and that there are opportunities and potentials that may drive us out of darkness, given that the intentions of good will are genuine and true. Egypt has always been the realm for Egyptian Judaism, Egyptian (Coptic) Christendom, and Egyptian Islam. Egyptian Judaism presented an Eastern Jewish culture and architecture which one would not find in Germany for example, in particular after the Crystal Night tragedy. To date, the restoration of the synagogues in some German cities are still made, however, the restorations have seriously damaged the eastern Jewish character of the facades.

Therefore, I understand the deep fear of the Coptic monks and friars that the restoration process would distort the Coptic ‘spirit’. I am deeply empathic and share their fears. Egypt deserves to have its Coptic heritage Dayr al-Ṣultān preserved, just in the same way Egypt preserved the Jewish heritage for the entire world.

Finally, I would like to express my solidarity with my Coptic people in their peaceful vigil. I call on the Egyptians to unite with them on the basis of the moral right and common national values without inciting hatred or fanning strife, but to remind them of Surah al-Dhāriyāt:55, “But go on reminding them, as reminding benefits the believers.”


تحديث: بعد مكالمة هاتفية مع أحد العالملين في بطريركية الأقباط الأرثودوكس بالقدس، ” أن قضية ملكية الدير الآن منظورة أمام محكمة الصلح الإسرائيلية للبت فيها بشكل عالجل واليوم كانت أول جلسة ” ، وسأحاول إعلام القاريئ بالمستجدات حتى تعود مفاتيح “دير السلطان” إلى يد الأقباط،.

After a short call with one of the workers in Coptic Orthodox Patrairchate in Jerusalem the Monastery’s case is before the Israeli  Magistarte Court , and today the first senssion took a place, we will inform the Reader in next articles with the Update, till the Copts get their rights over Deir al Sultan Monastery.

[1][1] Saturday is Sabbath, the Jewish day off. On this day the Israeli archeological authorities cannot be reached.

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