JERUSALEM – Emotions were mixed as Christian leaders headed to the President of Israel’s annual New Year’s reception in Jerusalem on December 27. The annual event is held to celebrate the contribution of the Churches to the country.
However, only a few days earlier, it had taken a dramatic eleventh hour intervention from President Reuven Rivlin himself to protect the property rights of those very Churches. Recognizing the threat posed to the Christian community, the President’s actions, with the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, gave Christians in the Holy Land something extra to celebrate this Christmas.
Greeted at his official residence, Church Leaders were quick to express their personal gratitude to the President, but also their concerns that this recent peace may be short-lived. This is now the fifth time that factions within Israel’s governing coalition have sought to impose legislation that would make it possible for the State to confiscate, or “nationalize” Church lands.
The so-called “Tenants’ Rights Law” undermines Israel’s commitment both to religious freedom and to property rights. Its passage would significantly reduce the Churches’ capacity to raise funds, diminishing their ability to deliver on their responsibilities to the Christians of, and pilgrims to the Holy Land, not to mention their provision of humanitarian work and preservation of Holy Sites across the region.
The “Tenants’ Rights Bill,” christened the Zombie Bill by some leaders in the United States due to its repeated return from the dead, has been fiercely opposed by senior figures in Israel and around the world. Only a month ago members of United States’ Congress demanded its withdrawal. And in December, Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed Patriarch Theophilos III to the UK and affirmed the ongoing support of Her Majesty’s Government for the Christian community in the Holy Land. As Austin Tiffany, Director of the International Community of the Holy Sepulchre, points out, “No matter how many times leaders in Israel and around the world unite to kill it, this Zombie Bill keeps coming back.”
The recent return of the Zombie Bill has proved particularly controversial, seemingly cynically timed so that the local churches would struggle to attract the attention of the wider Christian world during the Christmas holidays.
At the New Year reception, His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III spoke on behalf of the Churches, thanking “friends both in Israel and around the world, who, in spite of the inconvenient timing, came immediately to our assistance,” and expressed gratitude to the President and Prime Minister Netanyahu for their commitment to withdraw the bill and “to preserve the unique multi-religious tapestry of our beloved Jerusalem.”
President Rivlin reinforced this message, insisting that “the State of Israel has no intention of harming the property rights of the Churches or their ability to realize their assets to support their activities.” On this point he was emphatic, stating, “We will never do that.” The President went on to draw attention to the persecution that Christian minority communities face in many parts of the world today.
The withdrawal of the legislation last week was a welcome Christmas gift. While Church leaders left yesterday’s New Year celebrations boosted by the President’s assurances, few believe that this will be the last they hear of this damaging and discriminatory legislation, particularly with elections due in April. As a result, Church leaders are looking to the New Year with both hope and determination. They are determined to put an end to this ‘Zombie Bill’ once and for all and hopeful that Jerusalem will remain a city of peace where people of all faiths can live and thrive together.
During the New Year reception President Rivlin addressed the Christian leaders, “We meet in this period of holidays, in a gathering that has become a tradition. We meet in Jerusalem at this time when so many people from all around the world are focused on this holy city. I was born in Jerusalem; I have lived here all of my life.
For me, Jerusalem is a holy city, but also, it is much more than that. I cannot imagine any other home, outside of Jerusalem. I know that you all share my love of Jerusalem, and I know, that you – like me – understand how delicate, the balance in this city is. You – like me – know that for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, living together in this city is not always simple. You – like me – believe that living together in this city, is the most moral thing to do.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares this understanding. Like you, I see the role of the State of Israel, as guardians of this city. As guardians, our sovereignty over Jerusalem will never compromise the freedom of worship and religion of all peoples of faith in Jerusalem and in all of Israel.”
Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem said on behalf of the Church leaders, “While thankful for this reprieve, we are deeply concerned that attempts to bring this legislation forward will continue. We shall therefore remain actively attentive to this matter, and convinced that this Bill has no place in the corpus of legislation of the State of Israel. We reiterate our readiness for dialogue to find lasting solutions that benefit our whole society. Yet at the same time we stand united in our position both to defend our legitimate and sacred rights, as well as to continue that constructive engagement with governmental authorities that has been formed and shaped over the many years.”
Israeli Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri said, “I am committed to freedom of religion and worship in Jerusalem… It is no exaggeration to say that there has never been a time when Jerusalem enjoyed more religious freedom than it does under the State of Israel. We hope for peace in this small country, holier than any other. Peace is not an extravagance, it is a requirement. We need to work hard for it. We pave the way to peace in daily life with small steps.”