Christians Join Jostle For Turf in Jerusalem

Old City's tensions grow as mosque expands by revered site of Jesus' crucifixion.

The top-ranking Greek Orthodox official here, Metropolitan Timothy, is giving a rare tour of the patriarchate's monastery. The purpose for the unusual glimpse is to lodge a serious complaint: Virtually overnight, the clerics' living quarters have become two rooms smaller.

It got that way, he says, when officials of the Islamic mosque next door "stole" the rooms while the Greek priests were away, hastily sealing up the entranceways to the rooms with cement.

The church, the largest of the Christian denominations represented in Jerusalem, is also upset that the Waqf - the Islamic religious authority - is building an annex to the al-Hanka Mosque that borders on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Church officials are incensed, because the shrine revered as the site of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection will be adjacent to the mosque's new wing and its main feature - toilets.

"We are in a very sad situation," says the metropolitan, "in which we have to denounce the acts of violence and desecration of the Holy Sepulchre by the irresponsible people of Al-Hanka Mosque."

Christians enter the fray

Such strong words come at a time when Israel and the Palestinians are already locked in a struggle over the future of Jerusalem, when the proximity of Muslim and Jewish holy sites have recently proved to be a tinderbox waiting for a spark.

Still mired in a near-breakdown of the peace process, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have been trying to exert more control over the holy city ahead of the "final status" talks in which the future of Jerusalem is to be discussed.

But now Christians, who span both sides of the conflict and who sometimes try to stay out of it altogether, are seeing a rise in tensions with Muslim religious figures who want full autonomy in East Jerusalem's Old City.

The melee is raised a notch by the fact that Israeli policy requires a hard-to-obtain permit for any building anywhere in Jerusalem. In the past, Palestinians who don't accept Israeli rule in East Jerusalem have had their "illegally built" homes and buildings torn down.

What Israel treated as a routine enforcement of that policy last summer became explosive when a city wrecking crane destroyed a new Muslim Quarter building that had been built without a permit. The anger that ensued - followed by the opening of a controversial new exit to an archaeological tunnel, which exposed more of the Western Wall - a Jewish holy site - triggered three days of deadly fighting. Muslims were upset because the tunnel runs near their sacred Dome of the Rock.

Perception vs. reality

This time, as last year, perception seems to count for as much as fact. The tunnel did not actually run underneath the Islamic mosques and endanger their foundations, but charges that it did angered Muslims the world over.

In this new case, many of the Greek clerics allege that the Waqf is building the toilets on the church roof, while a visit to the building site shows that the bathrooms are actually at ground level.

But the mosque extension uses the courtyard wall of the church for the back wall of the new structure. And even that is something Israeli and church officials say is a violation of the so-called "status quo," a 140-year-old gentlemen's agreement to leave holy sites in the Old City as is, unless otherwise discussed and agreed upon.

Though there is still much dispute over the status quo even within the nine denominations that share the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it is considered important.

Who makes the Muslims' rules?

"The status quo is sacred," says Uri Mor, the liaison from Israel's Religious Affairs Ministry appointed to intervene in the matter. "I call it my Bible, because it's my job to keep the status quo. Otherwise, it will be chaos." Now, after trying to persuade the Waqf to drop the project, he's obtained a stop-work order from a judge. It has so far gone unheeded.

Inside the Al-Hanka Mosque, where a line of men are performing prayers over the din of construction outside, Sheikh Yacoub Rujabi can't understand what all the noise is about. He says no rooms have been confiscated to enlarge the mosque, and that all that is being done is restoration work on the Muslims' lawful property.

"This is 20 meters from the church," he says, pointing out the new wing. "This is our courtyard and our wall. We don't need permission. No authority can interfere in Muslim affairs but the Waqf."

That is at least partly true. When Israel took control of East Jerusalem from Jordan during the Six-Day War almost 30 years ago, it left the city's Islamic properties in the control of the semi-autonomous Waqf. But control over the Waqf has become an intra-Muslim struggle.

Until the creation of the PA about three years ago, Jordanian officials managed the third-holiest site in Islam. Now, the PA has created its own Waqf - but the Jordanian one has not been dissolved.

Israeli discretion - so far

The PA, eyeing the battle for real estate here, has been more aggressive in its approach to acting independently. And so fearful are Palestinians of losing another inch to Israeli sovereignty that the PA announced last week that it was introducing the death penalty for any Arab who sells land to a Jew.

Had the mosque's new wing belonged to something other than a mosque, the Israeli government might have torn it down by now. That option has not been ruled out, but the lessons of last September's violence seem to have been learned.

"Nothing has been done by Israeli authorities to destroy the structure," says Moshe Fogel, a government spokesman. "The approach so far has been to try to convince them and go slow. In an area where even one stone moved is a sensitive issue, we don't want to rush in and aggravate the situation."

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