UK Media Watch

5 lies in Guardian op-ed claiming ‘Christians being driven out of the holy land’.

A Guardian op-ed by Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, (“Christians are at risk of being driven out of the Holy Land”, Jan. 7th) is full of errors, lies and distortions:

Lie #1

there is a threat…to the religious status quo, a threat instigated by radical settlers in and around Jerusalem, the heart of Christianity. 

Theophilos’s assertion that “radical settlers” threaten the religious status quo in Jerusalem is not true, as later in the article we learn that the “radical settlers” are Jews who buy property in east Jerusalem.  However, Jewish groups purchasing land in (east) Jerusalem do not threaten the “status quo”, at least in regards to what that term typically refers to:  access to holy sites, such as the Temple Mount.  (Alternatively, if he’s not referring to the status quo at holy sites, he could be making a morally troubling argument that any Jew who moves into areas of the city where Jews were ethnically cleansed and forbidden to live under Jordanian rule is itself a violation of the ‘status quo’.)

Also, note how he characterises Jerusalem as “the heart of Christianity”, but fails, in this paragraph or anywhere throughout the op-ed, to acknowledge the Jewish connection to the city.

Lie #2

The protection and accessibility of the holy places are understood through a set of rules called the “status quo”, which has been followed by all religious and governmental authorities of the region through the ages.

Contrary to his assertion, the protection and accessibility of holy places has NOT been “followed by all religious and governmental authorities of the region through the ages”.  For several hundred years under Ottoman control, non-Muslims were prohibited from visiting the Temple Mount.  When Jordan controlled east Jerusalem, Jews were ethnically cleansed from that section of the city and forbidden from visiting Jewish holy sites there. 

By contrast, since 1967, Israel has granted access to all faiths at the holy sites.

Lie #3

Now various sides want to claim the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, as the exclusive possession of only one people. This treats with contempt the mechanism that has maintained peace and our multi-religious landscape for generations.

His claim that “various sides want to claim the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, as the exclusive possession of only one people” is misleading. Only Palestinians have been campaigning at international forums, such as UNESCO, to erase the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the city’s holy sites. Israel has been doing nothing of the sort.  Even if he’s narrowly referring to the view, shared by most Israelis, that all of Jerusalem should be recognized as the Jewish capital, and the city should never again be divided, it’s unclear how this would undermine the “mechanism that has maintained peace” and the city’s “multi-religious landscape”.

Lie #4

one of the foremost threats to Christians in the Holy Land is the unacceptable activities of radical settler groups, which are attempting to establish control over properties around the Jaffa gate. The properties in question are in the heart of Jerusalem’s Christian quarter, the seat of all the patriarchates and headquarters of the churches, and less than 500m from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre….The Patriarchate has lodged an appeal with the Israeli high court of justice, but if our efforts prove unsuccessful the result would be immensely damaging to the integrity of the Old City.

Remarkably, Theophilos fails to reveal that the properties around the Jaffa gate “radical settler groups” are “attempting to establish control over” were in fact already sold to a Jewish group by the previous Orthodox Patriarch, Irenaios I.  Theophilos went to court to ask that the sale be nullified, because, their lawyers argue, the sale was “part of the corrupt operations of the previous patriarch and his treasurer”.  (The broader context ignored in the op-ed is that the church is the second biggest land owner in Israel, and has been selling land all over Israel for years to private developers due to the fact that they’re deeply in debt.)

Lie #5

If the settler groups were to gain control of the properties, they would be able to pursue their aggressive campaign of removing non-Jews from the City and from these strategic centres at the heart of the Christian quarter, threatening the very presence of Christians in the Holy Land.

Theophilos’s claim that settler groups are pursuing a “campaign of removing non-Jews from the city” – suggesting ethnic cleansing – is just absurd. Groups like Ateret Cohanim are indeed involved in a campaign to legally purchase property in east Jerusalem whilst encouraging Jews to move there, but they certainly aren’t attempting to kick non-Jews out of the city, and of course don’t have the power to do so.  Finally, his suggestion that the sale – again, by his predecessor – of a few properties in or around the Christian quarter to Jews threatens “the very presence of Christians in the Holy Land” is lunacy. 

As Dexter Van Zile, CAMERA’s Christian Media Analyst, has written, “between 1949 and 2015, Israel’s indigenous population of Christians has increased by 282 percent”. “No other country in the Middle East, Zile noted, “has experienced a similar increase in its indigenous population of Christians”.  Indeed, elsewhere in the region, Christian communities have suffered catastrophic losses over the same time frame. 

It is simply undeniable that Israel is the true ‘safe space’ for Christians in the Middle East.

Though we’re of course accustomed to errors, distortions and omissions in Guardian op-eds about Israel, this piece by the Orthodox Patriarch, suggesting some sort of sinister Jewish plot to ethnically cleans Christians from the holy land, rises to a whole other level of dishonesty. 

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