JERUSALEM — Simon Jaser is livid at the Israeli government for imposing heightened security measures at the entrance to the Temple Mount — what Muslims call Haram al-Sharif — after three Israeli Muslims shot and killed two Israeli policemen July 14 with guns smuggled on to the site.
Only, Jaser isn’t Muslim. He’s Christian.
Like the vast majority of Holy Land Christians, Jaser, a Palestinian from the West Bank city of Ramallah whose mother became a refugee in 1948, sided with Muslim Palestinians over the most recent Temple Mount crisis. Although Israel and Muslim officials took steps July 27 to de-escalate the situation by replacing metal detectors with other unspecified types of inspection, anger on the Palestinian street remains as strong as ever.
“The dwindling and increasingly weakened Palestinian-Christian community in Palestine is in full solidarity with our Muslim countrymen and friends, and we, as Christians, are equally victimized by the Israeli occupation,” said Jaser. “We don’t receive any preferential treatment” from Israeli authorities.
Jaser and other Palestinians insist the two-week standoff with the Israeli government, which took the form of peaceful prayer protests and violent clashes, was about sovereignty, not security. Even Christian Palestinians, whose ties to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount are historical (Jesus Christ visited the ancient Jewish Temple on whose ruins Al-Aqsa is built), revere the site as a symbol of future Palestinian statehood.
Palestinians assert that Israel’s placement of metal detectors and security cameras (both since removed) was an attempt to impose Israeli control over the site — something Israeli officials dispute. (Since 1967, Israel has allowed a Jordanian Islamic authority to run the site while Israel controls overall security.)
The Israeli government contends the measures were necessary to prevent extremists from all religions from carrying out attacks at the site, the holiest in Judaism and third holiest in Islam after Mecca and Medina. The attack against the police was launched from within the compound, according to video distributed by the police.
For two weeks, Muslims refused to pray in the Al-Aqsa Mosque because Israel tightened security there, choosing instead to pray in the streets and alleyways within and outside the Old City of Jerusalem.
Four Palestinians have been killed in violent clashes with Israeli police since the Temple Mount standoff began, and a Palestinian terrorist murdered an elderly Jewish man and two of his children in their home as they were eating Friday night Sabbath dinner.
Christian leaders, including Pope Francis, have expressed their concerns over the tensions, which have outraged the entire Muslim world.
Speaking to the crowds assembled in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square July 23, Pope Francis said he is following “with trepidation the grave tensions and violence of the last days in Jerusalem. … I feel the need to express a heartfelt appeal for moderation and dialogue,” the Pope said before calling on people around the world to pray for the peace of the holy city.
In a joint statement, leaders of all the Christian churches in Jerusalem condemned the violence and bemoaned “the loss of human life,” but reserved most of their criticism over Palestinian claims that Israel was changing the religious status quo on the Mount.
The “status quo” agreement dates back to the 1700s and specifies that various religious denominations and religions cannot make changes or assert more than their fair share of authority on holy sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or the Temple Mount.
Christian leaders noted that any threat to the status quo’s “continuity and integrity could easily lead to serious and unpredictable consequences, which would be most unwelcome in the present tense religious climate.”
Church officials said they “value” the role that Jordan plays as the custodian of Muslim sites in Jerusalem and throughout the Holy Land, which “guarantees the right for all Muslims to free access and worship to Al-Aqsa Mosque according to the prevailing status quo.”
In an interview with Vatican Radio, Bishop Munib Younan, the head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, said most Palestinians want to live peacefully with others in the region.
“In Palestinian society, there are people who think differently,” but the vast majority do not condone violence. But “mistrust is so deep,” it’s essential to find a political solution to end “the Israeli occupation, which is considered illegal,” Bishop Younan said.
Amnon Ramon, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, said the situation of Palestinian Christians is “very, very complex.”
“As a small minority, they are dependent on the majority, especially in Gaza,” said Ramon, noting that Christians make up less than 2% of both the Palestinian and Israeli populations.
“Many identify as Palestinian, and, in fact, Arab Christians were in some ways the fathers of the secular Arab national movement. They learned from the European tradition, and nationalism was part of that tradition,” Ramon said.
Although Palestinian Christians yearn for a Palestinian homeland, Ramon said, the fact that the Palestinian national movement is growing “more religious, more Muslim, more fundamentalist” is making it difficult for Christian Palestinians to find a place in that movement.
Naim Ata, a Catholic from East Jerusalem, said he shares Muslims’ concerns “because Israel’s actions are directed against Palestinians — all of us. It doesn’t matter to us if it’s Al-Aqsa today, because this is just one aggression among countless others, taken over the course of 70 years of oppression,” since Israel became a country in 1948.
“I, a Christian, have been repeatedly humiliated by Israeli soldiers, have had a demolition order for my parents’ house, have had to struggle not to lose my residency rights after I spent several years abroad to study,” he said.
During the crisis, Ata said, residents of his neighborhood were exposed to tear gas and water cannons filled with “skunk water” during violent confrontations with Israeli police.
Jaser shared similar experiences.
“Trust me, we go through the same humiliation and degradation as Muslims; our villages are raided and blockaded; our youths are arrested for resisting; our churches are also frequently vandalized by Jewish extremists” on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Jaser said Christians live in “complete harmony” with Muslims and that he also has friends in the Israeli peace camp “who respect me as a human being and want nothing but peace to prevail in the Holy Land.” That peace, he said, can be achieved only “if Palestinians are given their full rights on equal footing with Jews in Israel.”
He said, “We all deserve to live in peace, and this vicious and very long conflict has to end for humanity’s sake.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent. She writes from Jerusalem.