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Church leaders decry Israel's attempt to 'weaken Christian presence' in Jerusalem

(Wikimedia Commons/Berthold Werner)The Church of all Nations on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

The heads of Christian churches in Jerusalem have issued a rare joint statement on Thursday decrying what they describe as Israel's "attempts to weaken the Christian presence" in the city.

The statement, signed by the heads of the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Lutheran and other churches, was made in response to an Israeli court decision that pro-settlement group to take control of church land in a mainly Palestinian area of annexed east Jerusalem.

The ruling, handed down by the Jerusalem District Court last month, declared that the purchase of three major compounds adjacent to the Jaffa Gate in the Old City was carried out legally, which resulted in the transfer of the property from the Greek-Orthodox church to the rightwing NGO Ateret Kohanim Yeshiva.

"We now find ourselves united once again in condemning recent further encroachment on the status quo," the statement read, as reported by The Jerusalem Post.

"In such matters as this, the Heads of the Churches are resolute and united in our opposition to any action by any authority or group that undermines those laws, agreements, and regulations that have ordered our life for centuries," the statement continued.

Among the signatories of the statement were Greek Patriarch Theophilos III; Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian; Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa; and Archbishop Aba Embakob of the Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarchate.

The church leaders also criticized a proposed bill that seeks to nationalize lands that were previously owned by churches and sold to private investors.

The legislation, proposed by the Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria, has not been passed yet, but it could have a damaging effect on future church property deals. The measure proposes to compensate all sides that will be affected from the nationalizing of the land.

Azaria, a former Jerusalem city councilwoman, maintained that she only intends to protect the residents living in disputed lands and has no intentions to weaken the Christian presence in the capital. She noted that the measure will not apply to lands owned by churches, but only those that have been bought by real estate entrepreneurs.

The heads of churches contended that the court ruling and the legislation both pose a threat to a decades-old agreement between religions about the governing of sites in the city. They called on world leaders to intervene and help them protect the status quo.

"We cannot stress strongly enough the very serious situation that this recent systematic assault on the status quo has had on the integrity of Jerusalem and on the well-being of the Christian communities of the Holy Land," the churches wrote.

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