- ILAN BEN-ZION
Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority said Monday it was backing away from a controversial plan to encompass Jerusalem’s Christian holy sites on the Mount of Olives in a national park following an outcry from major churches.
The Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem rises above the Old City of Jerusalem and its sites are sacred to three monotheistic religions. Its slopes to the east of the Old City are dotted with churches of various sects that mark the traditional locations of events in the life of Jesus.
The Old City of Jerusalem is seen from the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem on Monday, February 21. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority has said it is backing away from a plan to encompass Jerusalem’s Christian holy sites on the Mount of Olives in a national park after an outcry from major churches. PHOTO: AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean.
The Armenian, Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches petitioned Israel’s environmental protection minister, whose department is in charge of the Parks Authority, in a letter last week.
The churches expressed the “grave concern and unequivocal objection” to the plan, saying it would disrupt the long-standing situation and aims to “confiscate and nationalize one of Christianity’s holiest sites and alter its nature”.
Farid Jubran, general counsel for the Custody of the Holy Land of the Catholic Church, said that by making an area that includes Church property part of a national park, it “puts control between the hands of people who have no other objective than to erase any non-Jewish characteristics on this mountain”.
Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg did not respond to interview requests.
But shortly after the outcry from churches, the Nature and Parks Authority said it was freezing the plan, which was due March 2 for approval by the Jerusalem planning committee.
The authority said it had “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 churches in the region”.
Israeli rights groups and peace activists had denounced the plan as an attempt by Israeli authorities to marginalize Palestinian residents and increase the Jewish religious and national significance of the Mount of Olives.
In a joint statement, rights groups Bimkom, Emek Shaveh, Ir Amim and Peace Now said the plan to expand Jerusalem’s 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 the non-Jewish presence and to prevent much-needed development of Palestinian neighborhoods, thereby increasing the pressure to evict them from the Old City basin.
Israel captured East Jerusalem and its Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed it in a move unrecognized by most of the international community.
The holy city is the emotional epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has lasted for more than a century, and even minor changes to the fragile status quo in Jerusalem can escalate into violence. Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state, while Israel sees the city as its united capital.