It was a very eventful Holy Week here in the Holy Land. Each of our congregations marked Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday with their congregations, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ in fellowship with one another.
In Jerusalem, we held joint congregational services with our neighbors at the Anglican Church, as well as each of the different language-speaking congregations within Redeemer. On Maundy Thursday, this diverse group of Lutheran-Anglicans marched through the Old City to the Garden of Gethsemane, where they closed the service in prayer and song, a beautiful sunset over the Old City in the background.
Good Friday in Jerusalem, despite political conflict creating some distraction and a smaller attendance, included a walk of the Via Dolorosa early morning, stripping the altar in the Church of the Redeemer, and parting ways in silence to reflect upon the death of Christ.
Easter Sunday in Jerusalem, for our English-speaking congregation, included a sunrise worship on the Mount of Olives, and for our Arabic-speaking congregation, was followed by an egg hunt for children.
This year’s Holy Week was a little different than some past Holy Weeks, however, due to Israeli restrictions imposed upon Christians normally entitled to enter Jerusalem during this holiest time of year. This year, just 1,000 permissions were granted for all Palestinian Christians outside checkpoints, deeply offending and hurting Christians who have come into Jerusalem each year to mark the resurrection of Christ and, for those in the Orthodox tradition, the Holy Fire, their entire lives.
This is a reflection from colleague and friend to the ELCJHL, Anglican Priest Don Binder, who wrote:
“Imagine you are driving across town to attend Easter Day services in your church. Only when you arrive, you find that the surrounding area has been cordoned off by barricades manned by hundreds of armed police.No crime has been committed, you’re told. But the authorities have decided that they are only allowing a few people inside to attend Easter services that day–and you’re not one of those included.Now imagine in that same cordoned-off section of town, there is also a synagogue and mosque. Unlike their treatment of Christians, the police are freely admitting those who wish to attend their Passover or Ramadan services–many hundreds, in fact.Sound like some Orwellian alternative reality? Or perhaps some distant third-world country? No. That was yesterday here in Jerusalem during Eastern Orthodox Easter. Less than two weeks ago, police summarily announced to the church leaders in Jerusalem that they were reducing by 90% those allowed to attend Easter eve services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre–limiting attendance to 1,000 worshipers for a church that can hold more than 10,000 people. What’s more, they were only going to permit 500 people from outside the Old City inside to join in the Easter festivities.Meanwhile, throughout the festivals of Passover and Ramadan, police have facilitated the admission of tens of thousands of daily worshipers to the Western Wall and the Haram esh-Sherif (though the latter not without incident, as you may have heard). As I’ve commented in my videos, because of my position as Undersecretary of the Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem, I was invited to help escort foreign diplomats from western countries to the service of Holy Fire yesterday. Yet even for those VIPs, it was like running a gauntlet. Police checkpoints were at every corner. Even when we reached the private property of the Greek Patriarchate, police had taken over there as well. They actually turned back nearly a dozen Consuls General and other diplomatic representatives, including ones from the United States. We had to take an alternative route to get inside.If that was the way it worked for VIPs, imagine you’re a local Palestinian Christian simply trying to worship on the holiest of Christian holidays inside the church built over the very Tomb of Christ. In the pictures I took below, you can see the grieving faces of a tiny fraction of the thousands who were not permitted even near their church yesterday, breaking with a precedent that has continued for nearly seventeen centuries, across half-a-dozen ruling empires. But apparently not now by the current right-wing Israeli government.Authorities will tell you this was all out of safety and security concerns, citing the Haredi disaster last year at Mt. Meron, where 45 died because of collapsing risers. But there is no comparison. Mt. Meron had been a free-for-all for decades, with no coordinated safety plans. In contrast, Church leaders have cooperated with Israeli authorities since they began occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. There have been firemen inside with extinguishers on their backs, and crowd-control measures implemented. Moreover, there are no such risers inside Holy Sepulchre to collapse, just a massively solid stone church. What’s more, if these were such grave concerns, why have police not limited the numbers of Jewish or Muslim worshipers in a similar manner? I think we all know the answers to that. Clearly, the “safety and security” rationale is merely a pretext for keeping Palestinian Christians from worshiping inside the Holy City. As such, Church leaders of Holy Sepulchre were right to issue bold statements against this draconian action, correctly identifying this as a religious freedom violation. In the end, the Israeli courts, with little deliberation, decided that 1,800 would be allowed inside Holy Sepulcher. So instead of a 90% reduction from the past Status Quo, there was only an 82% one. That’s cold comfort for the thousands of Palestinian Christians barred from worship yesterday. Beyond that, it should be a matter of grave concern for those around the world of any faith: to see the religious freedom of the Christian minority so violated yesterday is a severe erosion of human rights in the Holy City that is sacred to all three Abrahamic faiths. I invite the international community to intervene in this matter, and I challenge the Israeli government to do more than pay lip-service to their pledge to the world that they would protect both the religious Status Quo and freedom of worship inside the Holy City of Jerusalem.”
Don’s words reflect the gravity and heartbreak of this year’s restrictions, and is a call to action to speak up about this important issue.