An Ethiopian Journal

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Ethiopian Israelis still wander in the desert

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May 8th 2015 by Steven Kaplan

The Ethiopians [in Israel] will remain in the anomalous situation of both having entered the Promised Land and continuing to wander in the desert. Forty years may not be long enough this time.

Anyone viewing the recent clashes between Ethiopian-Israeli demonstrators and local policemen in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv could not help being reminded of similar scenes taking place barely a week earlier in Baltimore. Such a clear visual link between events in two such disparate places cannot but be viewed as further testimony to the power of satellite news and globalized media. We should, however, proceed cautiously in comparing the two situation or reactions of the parties involved.

Israel’s Ethiopian population is of fairly recent origin. Beginning in 1977, small groups began to make their way to Israel through Sudan or other countries. (At the time, Israel had no diplomatic relations with Ethiopia’s Marxist military regime.) Dramatic airlifts from Sudan (1984 and ’85) and on the eve of the fall of the Marxist government (1991) brought thousands into the country. After 1991, tens of thousands more arrived. Many of these immigrants spent years in transition camps in Ethiopia while Israeli politicians debated whether descendants and relatives of those brought into the country as Jews also had the right to make aliyah (literally “to ascend”) to Israel.

Today the Ethiopian population stands at about 135,000, over a third of whom were born in Israel or arrived in the country as small children. Despite plenty of good intentions (and we all know where those lead), their integration (what is called in Israel absorption) has not been easy.

While the immediate catalyst for the latest eruption of rage was the beating of an Ethiopian soldier caught on video, there are clearly deeper structural issues at stake. Although there have been clear improvements in school performance, high school completion, employment and almost every other quantifiable measure, Ethiopians still lag behind most of the country in educational achievement and income. Moreover, while the percentage of Ethiopians who serve in the military is higher than for the general population (and in Israel this is considered a badge of success), the percentage who complete their service is comparatively low. Despite official rulings in their favor, large parts of the powerful rabbinic establishment still question the Jewishness of the Ethiopians. Almost every school year begins with “crises” as one school or another refuses to accept its planned number of Ethiopian students.

Although it is often said that Israel is the first country to bring in people of African descent not to enslave them but to grant them equal rights as citizens, the truth is much more complex. Ethiopians were brought to Israel not merely to have equal rights but to be part of the dominant Jewish majority. Perhaps the most persistent testimony to this is that virtually any statistic available from government and nongovernment sources regarding the Ethiopians compares them not with the population as a whole but to other Jews.

For purposes of comparison, the 20 percent of the population that is Arab is invisible, and the success or failure of the Ethiopians is measured against only their Jewish counterparts. Thus while the campaigns on behalf of the Ethiopians are often voiced in terms of universal human rights, they often have a much narrower focus: equality with other Israeli Jews.

According to polls, Israelis overwhelmingly acknowledge that Ethiopians are discriminated against. This is commendable and in sharp contrast to the United States, where denial about racial discrimination is still common. At least in part, the Israeli anti-racist consensus is convenient because it limits itself to Jewish Ethiopian-Israelis.

Thus one can be anti-racist on the one hand and on the other ignore or take part in the ongoing pernicious discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel (leaving the territories out of the equation for the moment) or African migrants. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who infamously warned of “droves” of Arab voters going to the polls during the recent election, was quick to chime in condemning the latest mistreatment of Ethiopians. “We must stand together as one against the phenomenon of racism, to denounce it and eliminate it,” he said.

Similarly, the Orthodox Sephardi party Shas has been among the most welcoming to the Ethiopians, while depicting African migrants as infiltrators who pose “no less a threat than a nuclear Iran,” as onetime party leader Eli Yishai put it. In a 2012 poll, more than 50 percent of Israelis surveyed agreed with the statement that African migrants are a “cancer on the body of the nation.” The same poll indicated that fully a third condoned violence against the migrants. Small wonder that at least some of the anti-Ethiopian violence in Israel appears to begin when police mistook Ethiopians for the “wrong” kind of African — Sudanese or Eritreans.

That said, there is no arguing that the situation of Ethiopians in Israel is difficult. Many suffer from daily slights and discrimination. Moreover, they are underrepresented in the country’s universities and key industries and overrepresented in its jails and prisons. Many are stuck in Israel’s periphery in small towns, which have poor schools and limited employment opportunities.

If past incidents are any indication, the latest uproar will quickly pass after the requisite handwringing and public statements. The policemen involved have already been either fired or suspended, and the political leaders have voiced their condemnation. The Israeli Ministry of Education immediately put forward age-appropriate lesson plans on racism and violence.

Doubtless money will be found for cultural awareness programs, for recruitment of Ethiopian officers and for research, which will be call for more programs, more recruitment and more research. The beating of the soldier will be added to the cumulative song (think “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly”) of injustices done to Ethiopian Israelis, all of which will be dutifully recited the next time their mistreatment becomes public.

Meanwhile, the Ethiopians will remain in the anomalous situation of both having entered the Promised Land and continuing to wander in the desert. Forty years may not be long enough this time.

Written by Tseday

May 11, 2015 at 1:38 am

Rabbi Dovid Weiss interview on the occupation of Palestine

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Jewish religious scholar Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss explains why he believes that Israel as a state is not legitimate and why he opposes the occupation of Palestine.

Written by Tseday

April 10, 2015 at 9:04 pm

Zionism in Palestine

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Photo by Ilan Assayag – January 2012 – Ethiopian-Israelis protesters march in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem and hold signs which read, ‘Blacks and Whites – We’re all Equal’ and ‘Our Blood is Only Good for Wars.’

What has Jerusalem to do with Islam?

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To Pray In Jerusalem
July/August 1974

Earlier this year King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, a devout Muslim, protector of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, and the leading proponent of Islamic unity, made a significant remark that was widely quoted in the world press. “My greatest wish before I die,” said the 70-year-old King, “is to pray in Jerusalem.”

Muslims everywhere immediately understood and sympathized with King Faisal’s wish, but to Westerners unfamiliar with the Middle East the King’s statement came as something of a surprise. Undoubtedly, many persons today know that Muslims consider Mecca and Medina, both in Saudi Arabia, as Holy Cities and that the Ka’bah, in Mecca’s Sacred Mosque, is the point toward which, five times each day, the world’s 600 million Muslims face in prayer. But Jerusalem? From both the Bible’s Old and New Testaments Westerners know Jerusalem’s deep associations with Judaism and Christianity. But what has Jerusalem to do with Islam?

The answer is: a great deal. Jerusalem is as holy a city to Muslims—and for many of the same reasons—as it is to Jews and Christians, and it also figures importantly in religious traditions particular to Islam. There are also for Muslims some 1,300 years of historical ties.

The historical ties are not completely unknown in the West. Even those with a limited exposure to Middle East history probably know that in the year 637—13 centuries ago—crusading Muslims from Arabia besieged Jerusalem, accepted the surrender of its Byzantine overlords and ruled there almost continually until the Christian Crusaders from Europe came in 1099. They probably recall too that less than a century later Saladin, the gallant Muslim leader famous for his encounters with Richard the Lion Hearted, recaptured Jerusalem from the Europeans and that the subsequent Arab dynasties and later the Ottoman Turks, who controlled the Holy City up to World War I, were Muslim.

What has escaped the casual reader, however, is that Islam’s religious ties with the Holy City are equally long and much deeper. How many Western pundits now puzzling over King Faisal’s statement realize that the large rock atop Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, where tradition says Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, is also holy to Muslims because they believe it is the place from which Muhammad began his ascent to Heaven? Or that Arabs too believe they are descended from Abraham, prophet and father of the Jews, that they too revere him as a prophet and that he is mentioned in the Holy Koran as being a Muslim? And how many realize that John the Baptist and Jesus are also both accepted and revered by Muslims as prophets?

This lack of understanding, widespread and of long duration, is due in part to the historic hostility of Western nations toward Islam, a hostility probably originally engendered by Islam’s attempts in distant centuries to conquer Europe. As one result, Western religious history rarely mentions that Muslims, Christians and Jews share many nearly identical beliefs—such as the oneness of God, the need for total submission to His will and the clash of good and evil—and that in Islam, the last of the three great monotheistic religions, many of the individuals, events and places sacred to Jews and Christians are equally sacred to Muslims.

The Prophet Muhammad, to whom God revealed His truths, grew up in Mecca, then a center of pagan idolatry although both Judaism and Christianity, being Semitic religions, were known in Arabia. Muhammad was a ready instrument when God, in the year 610, spoke to him through the Archangel Gabriel—himself familiar to many Christians—and entrusted to Muhammad His final revelations, a confirmation of the Abrahamic line of revelations, the message of Islam.

This aspect of Muslim belief is crucial to any understanding of a Muslim presence in Jerusalem. For Muhammad, from the beginning, emphasized that he was only the last in a long line of prophets through whom God has spoken to mankind, and that he was only completing and fulfilling God’s often-revealed message. Thus he taught reverence for the prophets of the Old and New Testaments and respect for Jews and Christians as fellow monotheists and “People of the Book.” In the Holy Koran, which is God’s word as He revealed it to Muhammad, Biblical figures such as Adam, Noah, David and Solomon, and prophets such as Elijah, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus, with his mother Mary, all have their place. To put it another way, their ties to Jerusalem are also Islam’s ties.

Above all, Muhammad stressed reverence toward Abraham, father of the Jews and Arabs.

According to Muslim belief, Arabs are descendants of Abraham through his son Ishmael, as Jews are descendants of Abraham through Isaac. Indeed, Abraham, according to the Koran, was a Muslim himself. When, on God’s command, Abraham took his son to a rocky summit and prepared unflinchingly to sacrifice him to the one God, it could be considered, as the first example of complete submission to God’s will—the essence of Muslim belief—a starting point of Islam. As Sura 16, verse 120 of the Koran says, “Abraham was indeed a model, devoutly obedient to God, true in faith, and he joined not gods with God.”

Later, as God continued to reveal the message of Islam to Muhammad, the ties to Jerusalem became more direct. One night God, through the Archangel Gabriel, summoned Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem on a Nocturnal Journey (Isra’). According to Muslim belief, Muhammad was carried aloft on the back of a winged mare named al-Buraq to Mount Moriah and the Holy Rock. From its summit he ascended (Mi’raj) through the stages of Heaven, meeting and praying with the previous prophets including Abraham, Moses and Jesus. In the Seventh Heaven Muhammad appeared before the throne of God, Who spoke to him. The Prophet then returned to the Holy Rock and, mounting al-Buraq, was back in Mecca by dawn.

As the embarkation point for this journey to God, Jerusalem thus became even more established as a Holy City. As Sura 17, verse 1 of the Koran says, “Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque (Mecca) to the Farthest Mosque (Jerusalem), the precincts of which We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our signs …” Indeed, for a short time early in their history Muslims prayed toward Jerusalem, and it is called in Arabic Ula al-Qihlatain, “First of the two Qiblas,” —”directions”—the second being Mecca. It is also called al-Quds ash-Sharif, “the Holy and Noble City,” or simply, al-Quds, “the Holy.” In addition to the Koranic blessing, there is a Hadith, or saying attributed to the Prophet, that Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem are equally deserving of pilgrimage.

For all those reasons, it was inevitable that the Muslims would want to implement their spiritual rights to Jerusalem. In 637 they did. By that time, the empires of Persia and Byzantium, successor to Rome, were deadlocked after years of exhausting struggle to control what is now the Middle East. And although Muhammad had died, the faith of his followers was such that they had routed the Byzantine forces from every major city between the Tigris and the Mediterranean except Jerusalem. Now, in 637, they approached the city, pitched their tents on the Mount of Olives and prepared to take it.

Inside the walls of Jerusalem, then called by its Roman name, Aelia Capitolina, the Byzantines, nearly defenseless, debated whether to surrender or fight—as they had 20 years before when the Persians were at the gates, resulting in ruthless and indiscriminate slaughter. Those arguing for surrender pointed out that when Damascus fell to the Muslim armies two years before, there had been no slaughter. Furthermore the terms of surrender had been extremely lenient, with Christians being allowed to continue praying in their churches upon the payment of a poll tax which guaranteed for them as well as Muslim citizens, the “Security of Islam.”

As news of this had leaked into besieged Jerusalem, the Greek Patriarch, Sophronius, sent word out that he would surrender the city without a struggle, but only to the Caliph Omar personally. Omar, then in Damascus, agreed and in one of the great scenes of Muslim history entered Jerusalem alone, except for a servant. Because his clothes were torn and dusty from the ride from Damascus, and because his manner to his servant was so courteous, the Byzantines, arrayed in pompous splendor to meet him, assumed the servant was Omar and greeted him effusively—to the quiet amusement of the Caliph. Thus did Islam come to Jerusalem.

Omar’s behavior on that occasion was symbolic of his later approach to the Christians and to Jerusalem. Once his identity was clarified, Omar asked Sophronius to show him the city’s holy places, and Sophronius led him first to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As it was prayer time the Patriarch invited the Caliph to pray there with him. Omar declined, saying that to do so might later encourage his followers to convert the church into a mosque. Instead he prayed outside a little to the south, a place commemorated today by a 10th-century mosque called the Mosque of Omar and built in a small garden across the courtyard from the entrance of the Holy Sepulchre. (Aramco World, March-April, 1965).

As the Caliph Omar was especially eager to see the site of the Prophet’s ascendance to Heaven, the Patriarch led him to an ancient, crumbling platform on the eastern edge of the city. Seeing that it was piled with the debris of the Persian destruction and more recent accumulations of municipal refuge, Omar personally began the task of clearing the rocky summit so that the site could be reconsecrated. This area today is in the center of a 34-acre compound in the southeast corner of the Old City called al-Haram ash-Sharif, “the Noble Sanctuary.” The whole area in Omar’s time was known as al-Aqsa, “the Furthermost,” a reference to Muhammad’s ultimate journey. The Caliph ordered that a simple wooden mosque be built on the southwestern corner of the platform near the great wall where, tradition held, the Prophet had tethered his mare al-Buraq.

Traveling with the Muslim army was a man named Bilal, who had been the Prophet’s own muezzin, or prayer caller. On the first Friday after the discovery of the sacred rock, Omar went to the enclosure to worship and there Bilal himself, for the first time since Muhammad’s death six years previously, called the faithful to prayer. Al-Quds, Holy Jerusalem, was in Muslim hands.

Omar’s covenant with the Byzantines of Jerusalem followed the pattern of Damascus. With the payment of the poll tax and the acceptance of the “Security of Islam,” Christians were given self-government under their ecclesiastical leaders and Christian pilgrimages from the West were permitted. This is part of the text of Omar’s treaty:

“In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. This is the covenant which Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the servant of Allah, the Commander of the Faithful, grants to the people of Aelia, the Holy House. He grants them security of their lives, their possessions, their churches and crosses . . . they shall have freedom of religion and none shall be molested unless they rise up in a body. . . They shall pay a tax instead of military service . . . and those who leave the city shall be safeguarded until they reach their destination. . .”

As John Gray, an English historian, puts it, Omar’s decree was “less of a treaty imposed by a conqueror than a guarantee by a victorious faith confident in its inherent strength and conscious of its responsibilities.”

In the years that followed, Omar’s successors set to work on what is possibly Islam’s most beautiful shrine: the Dome of the Rock, so called because it encloses the rock from which Muhammad ascended. Built during the reign of the Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, it was finished in 691, and is one of Islam’s oldest existing monuments. Despite extensive modifications and repairs throughout the centuries it is today essentially the same: a magnificent structure with a great golden dome that, until the present government began to build high-rise apartment houses on surrounding hilltops, dominated the city’s skyline.

Close by the Dome of the Rock is the also famous Aqsa Mosque. Built near the site of Omar’s wooden mosque in 715, al-Aqsa has a special place in Muslim affections, because by unspoken tradition it is more a house of prayer than a monument. Five thousand worshipers can pray inside. Remarkably, these two edifices, the main symbols of the Muslim presence in Jerusalem, have survived all the difficult centuries that followed.

The pattern of religious tolerance established in Jerusalem by Omar and maintained by the Umayyad caliphs became uncertain under their Abbasid successors, deteriorated further under the Fatimids and vanished in 1099, when the Crusaders captured the Holy City (Aramco World, May-June, 1970). Not only did the European conquerors massacre all but a handful of Jerusalem’s Muslim defenders, but also burned the small Jewish community in its synagogue and slaughtered great numbers of Arab and Orthodox Christians. The Crusaders also converted the Muslim shrines to churches. A gold cross was raised on top of the Dome of the Rock, which the Crusaders then named the Templum Domini. Another was placed on the dome of al-Aqsa Mosque, which was named the Templum Solomonis and became the headquarters of the militant religious order, the Knights Templar.

But if defeated, the Muslims were not conquered. In 1187 under the great Saladin, they decisively defeated the Crusaders at Hattin near Galilee and, on October 2, the anniversary of the Prophet’s Nocturnal Journey, rode back into Jerusalem. Then, fulfilling the vow of his predecessor Nur ad-Din, who had dedicated a magnificent cedarwood minbar, or pulpit, made in Aleppo to the capture of the city, Saladin installed the pulpit in al-Aqsa Mosque. Though isolated coastal outposts remained in Christian control up to 1291, al-Quds, the Holy, was again part of the Muslim empire.

Under Saladin, whose chivalry was a legend even among his enemies, the tolerance of Omar was restored. His merciful occupation of the city was in glaring contrast to the policies of the Crusader conquest. He spared all lives, offered the “Security of Islam” to those who sought it and, although removing the crosses and altars from the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa, left all other Christian shrines intact.

During the Ayyubid dynasty, which came next, it became traditional that at times the various sultans would clean al-Aqsa with their own hands before dispensing alms. The sultans of the Mameluke dynasty, which came to power in the 13th century, assumed the title “Servants and Guardians” of the holy places in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. They were notable not only for the substantial restorations and redecorations they carried out in both of Jerusalem’s two major shrines, but also for the steps they took to provide for their future. The Mamelukes purchased substantial properties in Jerusalem, especially in the Magharibah quarter just west of the Noble Sanctuary, and through the establishment ofwaqfs, or perpetual sacred trusts (Aramco World, Nov.-Dec, 1973), dedicated their income to finance the upkeep of the holy places and establish, maintain and operate Muslim schools, religious institutes, pilgrim hospices and kitchens for the poor. Those institutions, plus the homes and neighborhood mosques of the devout who settled close to the two great mosques, made up an intimate, if humble, part of the Muslim presence for five centuries.

Today this presence, if weakened, is still obvious, particularly in al-Haram ash-Sharif, “the Noble Sanctuary.” On or near this site, to be sure, there occurred some of the great events of Biblical history. It was here that tradition says King Solomon built the Temple. It was here, Christians believe, that the boy Jesus was found by Mary and Joseph preaching to the elders and that he later chased the money changers from the Temple. But it should be remembered that it is a central site for Muslims too, being the holy spot from which Muhammad ascended to Heaven to pray with former prophets and appear before the throne of God.

Within the Dome of the Rock, in a small cave beneath the rocky summit of Mount Moriah are Muslim shrines to Abraham and Elijah. Here, tradition says, is the site of the Last Judgment. Beneath it is the Well of Souls, where spirits await the Day of Judgment in prayer and apprehension. And scattered about the Sanctuary are other shrines which, with quiet eloquence, remind Western visitors of how many more of their own traditions are shared by Muslims: the Dome of Moses, the Dome of Solomon, the Dome of Gabriel—all built by Muslim caliphs through the centuries. In the far corner is a small dome to mark the spot where, Muslim tradition says, Mary and the infant Jesus rested before starting down to Egypt. Across the valley on the Mount of Olives, a small mosque commemorates the site ofhis ascension to Heaven. Around the edge of the platform are a series of graceful arches, the mawazeen, from which, according to tradition, the balance scales will be hung on the Day of Judgment. Toward the south is the silver dome of al-Aqsa, “the Furthermost,” the blessed mosque, now being patiently restored after it was severely damaged by arson in 1969, in which every devout Muslim hopes to pray.

And in the center, towering above all, is the Dome of the Rock, Islam’s holy shrine built on a rocky mountain top above which Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad worshiped together and where, before he dies, an aging King hopes some day to pray.

William Tracy is Assistant Editor of Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 24-31 of the July/August 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Written by Tseday

April 23, 2009 at 1:48 pm

An Ethiopian Easter in Jerusalem

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Palestine Monitor
29 April 2008

Contrary to romantic perceptions, the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City by night are typically sinister and ghostly due to a combination of bad lighting and poor rubbish collection services, together with the cadres of patrolling Israeli police and soldiers armed with rifles and batons, and the scores of CCTV cameras that punctuate the walls of each winding alley.

But this weekend, the city’s streets took on a festive hue as thousands of orthodox pilgrims converged on the city’s Christian holy sites to celebrate the most important event in the Christian liturgical calendar: Easter.

José M. Ruibérriz

A willing pilgrim poses for the many photographers present at the Holy Saturday ceremony. Photo: José M. Ruibérriz

One of the most lively and joyful of these celebrations is the Holy Saturday festival held at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which Christians believe to be built on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

The Holy Saturday festival commemorates the time that Jesus is said to have lain in the tomb and descended into hell, defying death and releasing those held captive there, including Adam and Eve.

According to orthodox tradition, at exactly 2pm on this day, a sun beam is said to shine on Jesus’ tomb, lighting 33 candles held by the Patriarch of the Greek Church who waits inside the tomb. The Patriarch then emerges carrying the Holy Fire to light the candles of thousands of worshippers that crowd into the Church for the ceremony.

But because of the strict guidelines defining which part of the Church belongs to which of the six churches based there, Jerusalem’s tiny Ethiopian community conducts its own Holy Fire ceremony later on Saturday evening in the courtyard of the Deir Al-Sultan monastery, which sits on the rooftop of the Church.

Deir Al-Sultan has been home to a community of Ethiopian monks since 1808. The monastery lies above the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross, where Queen Helena is believed to have discovered the three crosses used to crucify Jesus and the two thieves, Dismas and Gestas. It consists of several small chapels, including the Chapel of the Archangel Michael, and a courtyard with a dome in the centre which gives light to the Chapel of Saint Helena below.

During the Holy Saturday festival, the Archbishop of the Ethiopian Church, dressed in an elaborate golden garment, wearing a jewelled crown and sporting a candle carrying the Holy Fire, lights candles carried by monks, nuns and pilgrims wearing simple white cotton robes. Led by the Archbishop, the worshippers proceed to dance around the dome of the Chapel of Saint Helena to the sound of drums and to the smell of incense, chanting and singing as they go. The Archbishop then retreats to a tent erected outside the Chapel of the Archangel Michael especially for the occasion, where prayers continue.

José M. Ruibérriz

Ethiopian pilgrims dress in white cotton robes for the Holy Saturday ceremony. Photo: José M. Ruibérriz

The Ethiopian Holy Fire ceremony attracts a great deal of attention, and today the courtyard is filled with Israelis, Palestinians, Germans, Italians and a multitude of other nationalities vying for the best view of the festivities.

A spirit of joy prevails over the celebrations, fuelled by the infectious smiles of the Ethiopian pilgrims. While some of the younger worshippers pose with their candles for the many camera-toting media and tourists, some of the older members frown on, decidedly unimpressed by this outside attention.

José M. Ruibérriz

A nun frowns at the touristic and media attention generated by the ceremony. Photo: José M. Ruibérriz

Yet outside of the Easter festivities, the area is the site of a lengthy and sometimes violent turf war between the Ethiopian and Coptic churches, exacerbating and exacerbated by other disputes between the six churches competing for control over the Church: the Latins (Roman Catholics), Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Copts, and Ethiopians.

Since its dedication around 335, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has undergone many cycles of destruction and rebuilding often strongly linked to political upheavals that have persisted in the region throughout history. And since the accession to power of the Ottoman Turks in 1517, many political machinations among Christians trying to gain control over all or parts of the edifice have followed.

On Palm Sunday in 1767, a squabble broke out between the Greeks and Franciscans over rights to the Church. In order to put what they thought was a decisive end to the bickering, the Ottoman authorities passed a firman (imperial decree) splitting the Church and other holy sites in Palestine between the various Western and Eastern churches. This eventually came to be known as the Status Quo, basically a legal regime restating the different rights and powers enjoyed by the various Christian denominations over holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, including the monastery of Deir Al-Sultan in Jerusalem.

Successive regimes promised to uphold the Status Quo throughout the 20th century, including the British, the Jordanian, and the Israelis. But neither the Jordanians nor the Israelis kept their Status Quo promises when it came to Deir Al-Sultan. In what some say was a jibe at the Egyptian authorities at the time, the Jordanians passed a ministerial decree in 1960 ordering the Coptic Church to hand over the monastery’s keys to the Ethiopians. When the Copts refused, the Jordanian police forcefully broke open the monastery’s locks and handed the new keys over to the Ethiopians. The Jordanian king personally intervened and ordered that the monastery be restored to the Coptic Church.

But the Jordanians lost East Jerusalem and the Old City when they were occupied by the Israelis in June 1967, and the dispute erupted yet again. On Coptic Easter in 1970, while the Copts were busy at midnight prayers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Israeli police forcefully changed the locks at Deir Al-Sultan and handed over the monastery’s new keys to the Ethiopians. Despite a ruling by Israel’s High Court in 1971 that the monastery be returned to the Copts, no action was taken and the situation remains unresolved to this day.

For their part, the Ethiopians accuse the Copts of having taken over the monastery in 1838 when plague struck Jerusalem and all the Ethiopian monks died. According to the Ethiopians, the Copts burned down the library containing the documents which validated the Ethiopians’ claim to Deir Al-Sultan.

José M. Ruibérriz

An elderly pilgrim reads his bible by candlelight. Photo: José M. Ruibérriz

Today, a tense coexistence prevails between the Copts and the Ethiopians, one where even the most seemingly insignificant actions can spark off fierce internecine fighting. In 2002, an unholy brawl broke out when an Egyptian Coptic monk stationed on the roof decided to move his chair from its agreed spot into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, violating an agreement that defines ownership over every nook and cranny in the Church. Rivals hurled stones, iron bars and chairs at each other in the resulting fracas, and seven Ethiopian Orthodox monks and four Egyptian Coptic monks were hospitalised as a result.

This tragi-comic incident is just a small example of the wider battle raging within and over Jerusalem, one that is not only religious, but deeply political. While this Easter passed without incident at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Palestinian struggle for East Jerusalem as a Palestinian city is being severely undermined day by day.

The building of Israel’s Apartheid Wall is isolating the city from its Palestinian hinterland in Ramallah and Bethlehem, while the construction of thousands of new illegal settlement homes for Jewish Israelis on confiscated Palestinian land are fragmenting Palestinian neighbourhoods and severely impeding their development.


Worshippers carry candles light by the Holy Fire. Photo: José M. Ruibérriz

While pilgrims from all over the world come to Jerusalem to pray at its holy sites, local Palestinian worshippers, Christians and Muslims alike, are denied free access to the city and depend on permits arbitrarily granted by the Israeli authorities. While Israel puts on a show of beneficent religious tolerance for the outside world, it quietly enforces a relentless system of Apartheid against Palestinians.

Written by Tseday

November 4, 2008 at 11:32 pm