2 March 2018 – Status of Churches in Occupied East Jerusalem

Excellency,

I write to draw your attention to the ongoing critical situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and, more specifically, to the continued repressive practices by Israel, the occupying Power, against Palestinian worshippers and holy sites in Occupied East Jerusalem, including one of the holiest churches in Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Recent developments highlight once again the urgency of efforts by the international community, particularly the Security Council, to collectively act to stem the dangerous deterioration to avert further instability; to ensure respect for the relevant United Nations resolutions, including with regard to the status of Occupied East Jerusalem as occupied territory, the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and the prohibition of all acts aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the City; and to ensure respect for the historic status quo at the holy sites.

In light of ongoing attempts by the occupying Power to change the status of the City and in contravention of the historic status quo, on Sunday, 25 February 2018, leaders from the Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches were compelled to announce the closing of the doors of their churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in united protest against Israel’s discriminatory policies, which undoubtedly aim at weakening the Christian presence in Jerusalem.

This decision by church leaders was premised on a series of ongoing and systematic attacks against Christians violating their most basic rights. For example, a so-called bill was proposed in the Israeli Knesset that would allow Israel, the occupying Power, to confiscate church-owned land leased to private investors, a bill that solely targets the properties of the Christian community. Another proposed measure targeting churches would see churches starting to pay tens of millions of dollars in taxes on their assets and properties.

Moreover, the occupying Power, has already seized hundreds of thousands of dollars from the largest churches in Jerusalem, including the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Anglican, and Armenian Orthodox Churches. Liens placed on church accounts, and the freezing of bank accounts, such as that of the Anglican Church in Jerusalem, have already stunted churches’ daily operations in the city. Recently, a representative of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate has stated: “All of our assets are frozen,”“We can’t pay for food, salaries, administration, nothing.” In an ecumenical letter penned on 14 February, the churches expressed that this measure “both undermines the sacred character of Jerusalem, and jeopardizes the Church’s ability to conduct its ministry in this land on behalf of its communities and the world-wide church.”

These illegal actions breach centuries of precedent and existing agreements and betray international obligations that guarantee the rights and the privileges of the churches. Since the Ottoman period, all church property has been exempt from municipal property taxation.  In this regard, please find annexed to this letter a fact sheet regarding the historic status quo, its meaning and implementation across the years.

Following rejection and resistance from both Palestinians and international religious and political leaderships worldwide, as well as the closing of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for three days in protest of Israeli policies, Israel was compelled to retreat from its hostile assault on the heart and birthplace of Christianity on 27 February by suspending its so-called legislation on the imposition of taxes on churches and their properties.

This incident proves yet again that when people of conscience and members of the global community hold Israel to account for its violations, the occupying Power is compelled to respond, whereas lack of accountability fosters only further impunity, compounding the violations and hastening the deterioration of the situation.

In this regard, it is clear that, since the 6 December 2017 US announcement on Jerusalem, Israel has taken increasingly forceful action to tighten its control over the city. Indeed, while the Israeli plan regarding the Churches in specific has been temporarily suspended due to popular and international pressure, Israel’s plans and attempts to change the status quo of the holy sites in Jerusalem continue unabated and Palestinians (Christians and Muslims) continue to be systematically prevented from reaching their places of worship in Jerusalem, as the City remains under Israeli occupation, siege and security control.

Clearly, recent measures against Christian Churches attempt to severely change the status of Jerusalem and to further entrench Israel’s illegal occupation of Occupied East Jerusalem and impose Jewish exclusivity over the City as a whole, a City whose status remains that of “corpus separatum” under United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 (II).  In fact, the latest series of measures by the occupying Power are a continuation in its series of so-called “laws”, proposals and measures targeting the City, which expose its true intentions to alter the character, status and demographic composition of Jerusalem, in direct and grave breach of international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions.

In this regard, it is imperative to recall that Palestinian holy places and institutions have existed for centuries, long before the creation of the State of Israel.  Yet, for decades now, Palestinian Christian and Muslim holy sites have been the target of Israeli occupation measures seeking to distort and negate the sanctity, history, culture and relevance of these human heritage sites, while simultaneously attempting to eradicate the Palestinian identity and presence. Here we must recall the affirmation by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, “There will not be a vibrant Palestinian society without its Christian component. The contributions of our Christians to the national movement have been precious, always remembered, and represent an example for the rest of our region to make clear that there will not be an Arab world without Christians, an inherent part of our societies.”

The international community has a clear, legal position on the status of the occupied State of Palestine, including occupied East Jerusalem, and must reject all violations of that status and demand that Israel’s unilateral, provocative and illegal decisions be rescinded and regarded as null and void. Israel must be compelled to totally cease and not just suspend its measures against churches and the historic status quo in Jerusalem. It must be obliged to rescind all policies and practices that target Palestinian Christian and Muslim holy sites and that violate international law and United Nations resolutions, and must refrain from any such acts in the future.

In light of ongoing Israeli violations, we urge collective efforts to ensure that the historic status quo in Jerusalem that has prevailed for centuries be maintained.  As expressed by the General-Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Dr. Olav Fyske Tveit, “This situation should call for support and action from church leaders as well as from governments that are concerned about Jerusalem as a shared Holy City of the three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”

We thus reiterate our appeal to the international community to compel Israel, the occupying Power, to respect the historic status quo of the holy sites in Occupied East Jerusalem and to fully comply with the numerous relevant Security Council resolutions, including resolution 2334 (2016), and General Assembly resolutions pertaining to the holy sites, including resolution ES-10/19.  The occupying Power must show respect for the sanctity of the holy sites and respect also the role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan as the custodian of the Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem.  All illegal Israeli measures regarding the holy sites must be reversed and guarantees must be put in place that such measures, or any other provocative measures for that matter, will not be repeated as they will only risk exacerbating religious sensitivities and tensions, which must be averted at all costs.

We call on the international community to take a firm and principled stand against all illegal Israeli actions against the Palestinian people and their land, including firmly demanding that it immediately cease all measures and provocations violating the status quo of the holy sites and cease its provocations and stoking of religious sensitivities. The international community must act responsibly and take serious action aimed at compelling Israel to cease all of its crimes and violations before it is too late and to act forthwith to end the occupation that began in 1967.  These steps are urgent and long overdue and essential to allowing the Palestinian people to finally live in freedom and dignity in their own independent State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

This letter is in follow-up to our 624 previous letters regarding the ongoing crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, which constitutes the territory of the State of Palestine. These letters, dated from 29 September 2000 (A/55/432-S/2000/921) to 12 February 2017 (A/55/433-S/2018/___) constitute a basic record of the crimes being committed by Israel, the occupying Power, against the Palestinian people since September 2000.  For all of these war crimes, acts of State terrorism and systematic human rights violations being committed against the Palestinian people, Israel, the occupying Power, must be held accountable and the perpetrators be brought to justice.

I should be grateful if you would arrange to have this letter and its annex made available to the members of the Security Council for their immediate and valuable consideration and also distributed as an official document of the Security Council.

Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.

Dr. Riyad Mansour

Ambassador, Permanent Observer

of the State of Palestine to the United Nations