Binyamin Netanyahu's government may, or may not, have clamped down on Palestinian nationalistic activity in Jerusalem since it came to power two-and-a-half years ago. Government officials cite as proof of their efforts the cessation of visits by foreign dignitaries to the PLO headquarters at Orient House. Detractors say that de facto PLO "police" and other activity in the city has grown increasingly brazen during this time.
The war over Jerusalem is being waged simultaneously on another front, however--the battle for Christendom's hearts and minds. It's a fight Israel largely seems willing only to engage in behind the scenes. Not so Israel's foes.
Yasser Arafat knows the value of securing a Christian alliance for his cause. As often noted in the Digest, the PA chief makes a habit of foreseeing a united Muslim-Christian Jerusalem as the capital of his future Palestinian state. The battle will not stop, he insists, until the flag of Palestine flaps in acclamation over the city's mosques and churches.
The man's not stupid. He uses simple arithmetic. He knows that there are nearly two billion Christians in the world. He knows that churches in Jerusalem representing a great proportion of these Christians own the land on which they are located. And he knows how many of the native members of these churches regard themselves as Palestinians first and Christians afterwards. So he talks contradictory nonsense about claiming "Holy Jerusalem" as capital of what he has always insisted will be a "democratic and secular" Palestine. However, as a good Muslim--for whom there exists no separation between mosque and state--he is increasing his control over the churches that own the land by putting in place priests loyal to him. Proponents of this process call it "indigenisation"--the investing of indigenous priests over native congregations.
If the security report submitted last November to PM Netanyahu and Internal Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani is correct--and only Palestinians have challenged its accuracy--the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate owns the land on which sits the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Rehavia, as well as large parts of Abu Tor, the Old City and the Valley of the Cross (on the edge of which the Israeli Knesset is located).
With the aid of lawyers familiar with Greek law, and through the establishment of pseudo-Christian organisations, states the briefing on Netanyahu's desk, Arafat's PA is succeeding in its efforts to gain control of properties like these via the various churches. The success rate is impressive. So far the PA has acquired influence in the Latin Patriarchate, the Anglican Bishopric, the Lutheran Bishopric and the Greek Catholic Bishopric of Jerusalem. The last two decades have seen Palestinian clerics loyal to the PLO replace the Anglican's British bishop and the Lutheran's German one. Instead of the traditional Italian patriarch, the powerful Roman Catholic Church has had Palestinian Michel Sabbah wearing its robes since 1987. Lufti Laham is Greek Catholic Archbishop. And, Riah Hanna Abu-Assal recently became the second generation Palestinian Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem after Samir Kafity. Like his predecessor Abu-Assal is an outspoken critic of Israel.
The tide is turning against Israel. Last year it failed to prevent the appointment of Palestinian Boutros Mouallem as bishop of the Greek Melkite Church--the largest and oldest Christian denomination in the region --and now it is worried that a Palestinian patriarch might replace the traditionally Greek head of the Greek Orthodox Church. A Jerusalem-based legal scholar currently researching the city's religious dimension in the run-up to final status talks informs the Digest that Metropolitan Timothy, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, recently voiced an openness on the indigenisation issue which only months ago would have been unthinkable.
Meanwhile, Arafat is working to extend the PA's influence to the Armenian Patriarchate, the Franciscan Order (which controls Catholic sites on behalf of the Vatican), and the Greek Catholic Bishopric of the Galilee.
Oslo may be stalled, but Arafat remains uninhibited in his talk about the final status issues. During these negotiations, he says, the primary issue to be resolved will be Jerusalem. Palestinian Christians are being lined up to support his claim.
February will see a meeting of pro-PLO clergy here aimed at "reducing denominational divisions among the Christian community as a means to present a united front against Israeli attempts to weaken the church and the indigenisation movement".
It's not known at this point whether Arafat will attend the meeting in person. He may have been invited to make the opening address. What is quite certain, however, is that his spirit will be present in the room. In the words of that old PLO chant: "With spirit and blood we shall redeem you, O Palestine."