Ancient monastery attacked by Israeli extremists

By Lauren Gelfond Feldinger

Continuing vandalism at religious sites prompts condemnation from religious communities and politicians.

A medieval Greek Orthodox monastery in Jerusalem, one of the latest holy sites to be targeted in the region in an epidemic of vandalism, is at the centre of a diplomatic dispute between Greece and Georgia. In February, the outer walls of the Monastery of the Cross were graffitied with “Death to Christianity” and “Price Tag”, a slogan commonly used by extremist Jewish settlers protesting against the government’s removal of illegal outposts. Within days, the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was quoted in the Georgian press saying that he was seeking to return control of the monastery to Georgia, which previously controlled it, most recently in the 17th century.
Patriarch Theophilus, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate’s most senior official in Jerusalem, says Saakashvili’s remarks were “for political consumption” and that the ownership of the monastery is not up for negotiation. “There is a group of people with vested interests—so-called ‘holy guards’, the remnants of the old Soviet Union, including Georgians—who spread rumours and think they can buy the Patriarchate,” Theophilus says. He adds that an official letter he received from church officials in Georgia reveals that they are distancing themselves from the president’s remarks. Officials at Georgia’s embassy in Israel declined to comment.

One of the most important Christian holy sites, the monastery was built, according to tradition, on the site of a tree used to build Jesus’s cross. It has a long history of vandalism and controversy—in recent years, works of art of Georgian origin, including a fresco of the 12th-century Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli, have been defaced, causing a diplomatic furore, with Georgian officials insinuating that the vandalism was an effort to eradicate Georgia’s history at the site.

Theophilus acknowledges the uneasy history with Georgia, but says the vandalism was carried out by monks living in the monastery who were influenced by Georgians trying to reclaim their heritage. “Frescoes were damaged and some that were removed were found in Paris. The monks were removed [from the monastery] due to their misbehaviour,” he says.

Though there are no clear historical records, it is believed that the monastery was built by Helena of Constantine in the fourth century, destroyed and rebuilt by a Georgian monk in 629, and managed by Georgians and other Orthodox clergy until it was then taken over by a Muslim sultan in the 13th century. From the 14th to the 17th century, Theophilus says, the monastery was under Georgian control, until it went bankrupt. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate paid off the monastery’s debt, and saved it by taking it over, he says. The Patriarchate is now the second largest landholder in Jerusalem, after the Israeli government.

The police created a special task force to monitor any attacks that may be related to the “price tag” movement after several mosques in the West Bank and Israel were damaged by arson or graffiti, and other Palestinian, army and left-wing Jewish properties were defaced and people threatened.

The monastery was the first Christian site targeted with the price tag motto, followed by the Baptist House Church in Jerusalem, which was recently daubed with Hebrew graffiti, reading: “Death to Christians”, “Jesus the son of a whore”, “Price Tag” and “We will crucify you”, though the police are unsure if they were true “price tag” or copycat crimes. Asked if the monastery graffiti was related to political or land disputes, a police spokesman said: “We are investigating in all directions.”

After the most senior Vatican custodian in the Holy Land, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, wrote a letter to the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, saying that a line had been crossed and the Christian community was shocked and hurt, Peres responded that “the events could hurt good neighbourly relations and tolerance… and are against our law, beliefs, morality and against Judaism and I deeply apologise and condemn [these actions]”.

The Baptist House and the monastery received apologetic reactions from the local Jewish community, while Jews affiliated with the progressive West Bank rabbi, Menachem Froman of Teqoa, visited burned mosques to help repair or replace Korans.

Senior Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious leaders from Israel and the West Bank have convened to discuss the increasing vandalism at holy sites, says Bishop Younan, a co-founder of the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land. “We call on Jews, Christians and Muslims to respect the holy sites of all three religions and not to exploit religion in a political dispute. We are afraid the extremists—we don’t care from what religion—will keep us all hostage in the process,” he says.

The United Arab List party has responded by introducing a bill to increase punishment for the desecration of holy sites.