JERUSALEM — Worshippers at Jerusalem’s churches are braced for a violent Easter as relations between warring Christian clergy deteriorate to their most acrimonious level in decades.
Government officials called meetings with representatives from the churches and police last week after religious leaders warned of possible violence among priests during services.
With thousands of pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem ahead of Holy Week celebrations, church officials have been told that Israel’s security forces will not tolerate any trouble. Security will be stepped up at churches in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the clashes that have marred the past two years.
Fighting has broken out on several occasions at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City, which contains three Stations of the Cross and has long been fought over by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic churches.
Emotions are still running high after an incident last September, in which priests and police officers were injured when a fight broke out during a Greek Orthodox procession.
The remarkable scenes took place just a few feet from the holiest shrine in Christendom, where believers say Jesus rose from the dead.
The procession was led by the Greek patriarch, Irineos I, elected four years ago and blamed by senior clergy from other churches for fomenting unrest. The fight was captured on video by a Palestinian photographer and a copy of the film, which never has been made public, has been obtained by the Sunday Telegraph.
Patriarch Irineos can be seen telling his monks to close the door of the Franciscan chapel by force. In the ensuing commotion, a Franciscan priest, Father Athanasius, who represents the Catholic Church’s interests at the Holy Sepulcher, is dragged off by several monks, who appear to punch and kick him.
More than 30 police officers carrying automatic weapons are called in and, after a 20-minute standoff, the patriarch’s two armed bodyguards join a large scrum of monks who charge a police cordon around the chapel in an attempt to reach the door.
As the patriarch looks on, holding the relic of the True Cross on his head, bearded monks can be seen landing blows on the police officers.
The rights of the various churches to custody of the city’s Christian holy places were defined in the 19th century, under Ottoman rule.
The Catholics and Armenians blame the recent unrest on attempts by the Greek Orthodox Church, the richest Christian institution in Jerusalem, to extend its territory.
One senior Catholic clergyman in Jerusalem described Patriarch Irineos as a “lightning rod for trouble.” He said: “We had good relations with the Greeks before now, but since he was elected, it has gone from bad to worse. This is a serious crisis for all of the churches here in the Holy Land, because we increasingly look like a laughingstock.”
Easter promises to be a catalyst for trouble. The patriarch’s representatives recently proposed changing the route of a traditional Easter procession, demanding to be allowed to pass through the Franciscan chapel. Catholic representatives rejected the proposal, but the Greeks have not given up.
“The violence in the church was unfortunate, and we regret that this happened, but in this case, and others, we have just been asserting our rights in the holy places,” one Greek official said. “The patriarch has made it clear that he does not feel he is responsible for the violence.”
Extraordinary accusations of illicit land deals and sexual misconduct in the Orthodox priesthood have been aired in religious circles, leading one senior Greek cleric to warn of a potential split within the church.
“They behave like a criminal Mafioso gang, but this gang has run into big trouble,” he said.
The Greek patriarchate is Israel’s biggest landowner apart from the government. Among its prime plots of land are areas of Jerusalem real estate that include the site of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
Late yesterday, Arab leaders of the Greek Orthodox church called for the resignation of Patriarch Irineos after a report that he was involved in a land deal transferring sensitive property in Jerusalem to Jewish control.
The Israeli daily Ma’ariv reported Friday that the church had sold land in the walled Old City of Jerusalem to Jewish groups working to increase Jewish presence in the area. The properties, which include two hotels, are in traditionally Palestinian sections of the Old City.