Website accessibility
Show or hide the menu bar

Valuable religious real estate

The “Holy Land” is a religious concept used by many groups to justify involvement in Israel, the Palestinian Territories and parts of Jordan and Lebanon. The Vatican supports a two-state policy which would remove Jerusalem from Israeli jurisdiction and has proposed an “internationally guaranteed statute” (a concordat?) which would remove religious sites from Israeli jurisdiction.

Not all Catholics are in agreement with the Vatican’s political haggling over sacred
sites. Dave Pasinski, a former hospice chaplain, comments: “I think it would be wonderful
if the Pope said ‘... We believe that the Christ in the Eucharist is present in every
Mass and we really don’t need a site to remind us of that. So, we gladly cede any ‘rights’

that we have claimed because we believe we encounter Him daily and everywhere.” †

 After waiting for 45 years to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, the Vatican now seems to be in a hurry to conclude a financial agreement. Through first concordat, the 1993  Fundamental Agreement, a joint commission was set up to resolve the Church's financial and real estate issues, notably in territory occupied by the Jewish state after 1967. This agreement also advances a tentative timetable for resolving property issues within two years, but negotiations on this have been going on since 1999. "The Holy See wants full juridical and financial recognition of [subsidies for?] the Catholic Church's institutions in Israel, including a blanket tax waiver that the Church enjoyed before Israel's founding in 1948." [1]

Stemming the Christian exodus

The Vatican may want to get this concluded before the demographics become less favourable. In the Holy Land as a whole the Christian population makes up only 1.5 per cent and every year it declines further. The Vatican is interested in “urging peace so that Christian emigration will stop”. [2] Without a strong Christian presence there it will be hard to back up claims to some very valuable religious real estate. In 2012 the Pope even visited Lebanon to urge middle-eastern Christians not to continue emigrating. [3] 

In Bethlehem the security wall built by Israel is prompting more of the remaining 15 per cent of Christians still there to leave, thus increasing the Muslim majority. [4] (On his visit in 2009 the Pope spoke out against this wall.)

Rice Christians on a grand scale

Through funding by religious orders the Vatican is trying to stem the flow. The Franciscans are offering Christians subsidised housing and jobs in its construction. Christians of all denominations are given grants to attend Catholic schools and offered university scholarships on condition that they remain there four years after graduation, by which time they're likely to be anchored by their jobs. [5] The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem maintains Catholic schools and a seminary and, through the Latin patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Papal Nunciature gives direct aid to poor Catholics. This totalled $51 million from 2000 to 2010. [6] Such measures help the Vatican assume the leadership of the primarily Orthodox Christians in Israel. Despite all of this, however, in 2014 the Franciscans reported that there were "about 150,000 Christians in the Holy Land, and about 500 families leave each year". [7]

More Haredim and Palestinians in Jerusalem

In Jerusalem, where the Church also has important land claims, there is another religious shift, as the secular Jews leave the city and the ultra-Orthodox "Haredim", identified by their black suits and hats, flock there to await the coming of the Messiah. The Haredim vote as a religious block, and thus their political weight is disproportionately great. [8] They, of course, have their own theocratic agenda, and in 2011 began defacing advertisements in Jerusalem that showed women's faces. This has been seen as an attempt to force on the majority the practices of a minority of Israelis: the dress code of the rapidly-increasing number of ultra-Orthodox women who cover themselves, faces included, with veils called shalim. [9] These are also called frumkas, from the Yiddish frum meaning pious. However, most people around the world would call them burqas.

In 2017 the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel accounted for 12% of the population and by 2065 this is expected to rise to a third. Their large families average almost seven children. [10]  Reinforcing this trend, in 2013 Israel's chief rabbis began equating abortion with murder [11] In Jerusalem pressure from the ultra-Orthodox is driving out many more secular Israelis, while at the same time Arabs are moving from Palestine to the city where they feel they have more opportunities. As a result of these two factors, Muslims are reducing the Jewish majority in Jerusalem by one per cent a year. [12]

The increasing Palestinain population in Jerusalem may be part of the Vatican's recent attempts to form links with them. The Melkites, Catholics of the Greek Rite who speak Arabic, it is hoped, can offer a “bridge” for the Church. [13] And it's not just their language, even the Melkites' political sympathies help the Vatican negotiate with the Arabs. Archbishop Hilarion Capucci, now retired, calls himself a “Palestinian in spirit”. [14] He has been described as “a saintly man who was found in Jerusalem with an arsenal of arms and explosives hidden in the secret compartments of his sacred Mercedes”. [15]

For this purpose the archbishop used his diplomatic status and his official Church car. Sentenced by an Israeli court to twelve years, he was released a couple of years later through the direct intervention of the Pope. [16] He had to forfeit his Israeli passport and since then has been travelling under one issued by the Vatican. However, although the Vatican promised Israel that he would stay out of the Middle East, the mysterious Archbishop, based in the Vatican and using his Vatican passport, has been spotted travelling about and holding talks with Arab leaders. [17]

In 2000 the Vatican concluded a concordat-like agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and 14 years later the pope referred to the "State of Palestine". [18] There is an Apostolic Delegation located in East Jerusalem and a Palestinian embassy to the Holy See. [19] Eager for the diplomatic recognition implied by a concordat between two states, the Palestinians were conciliatory- "According to insiders, the Vatican’s fear was that a subsequent Palestinian regime might not be so amenable; it was better to conclude negotiations now...." [20]

Vatican pressure on Israel

As for the concordats with Israel, the first two, which have already come into force, have not been implemented, because the necessary domestic legislation has not been passed:

Still lacking is the enactment of the agreements in Israel's internal legislation, which means that they both certainly have value on the level of international law, but difficulties would inevitably be found in having them enforced by the Israeli courts. [21]

And then there is the issue of the decade-long negotiations on a financial settlement. This includes the ownership and tax status of religious sites and of leased Church land where many official Israeli buildings sit. Israel wants the Church to pay back taxes, while the Vatican argues it should be tax exempt. The Vatican also wants back Church properties expropriated in the past and a guarantee that this will not happen again. [22] One of the properties that the Vatican would like to control is the Cenacle. This is a room in a Crusader-era building, on a site where Christians claim that the Last Supper was held. On one wall it has a carved stone niche pointing toward Mecca, dating from when it was an Ottoman mosque and beneath its lower floor the Jews believe King David is buried. [23] (The building that was there at the time of Christ has been replaced several times and a biblical archaeologist even doubts that this long-vanished room was the site of either King David's tomb or the Last Supper, but no one can dispute the fact that the present building was indeed a mosque.) [24] At religiously contentious sites like this Israel wishes to remain in a legal position to maintain public order.

Work on resolving such issues in a “financial concordat” is inching along. In 2012 the Patriarchal Vicar for Israel said that progress was being made on the issues of municipal taxes that Jerusalem officials are demanding for Church-owned real estate and said that there was also progress on compensating the Holy See for former Church-owned land. [25]

In view of the support that Israel receives from the U.S., it is susceptible to pressure from the American Government and this has been openly applied through a prominent American Catholic. [26] And then there were the curious “leaks” from the negotiations which appeared in Italian and Catholic media on 8 June 2009, claiming that Israel would seize assets of some Catholic institutions to pressure the Vatican to pay disputed taxes. These seemed calculated to provoke outrage against Israel on this issue and were denied by Israel the very next day. [27]

Regarding its long-range plans for Israel and Palestine, Vatican spokesmen have said variously that it favours “an internationally recognized statute” for that part of Jerusalem where the Holy Places of the three monotheistic religions are, [28] “a multilateral treaty” for Jerusalem to be administered by a special organisation, [29] and that “Jerusalem cannot belong to one state.” [30] The Vatican's policy appears to hark back to the Protectorate of the Holy See of 1920. This concept was already built into the preamble of the concordat with the PLO in 2000. It would free the Vatican from having to conform to the requirements of any state authorities, whether Israeli or Palestinian. Supporting this is the Vatican statement, from a synod of Middle Eastern bishops in October 2010, urging a two-state solution, with special status given to Jerusalem. A Melkite bishop at the conference even went so far as to claim that the Bible did not justify a Jewish presence in Israel. [301

To some Israelis such pronouncements look like an attempt to loosen Israel's hold on the Holy Land by seeking Palestinian support, in a classic divide and conquer manoeuvre. [32] The increasing religious polarisation in the Middle East, would seem to favour such a strategy. [33] The Vatican's former foreign minister, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, has even tried to widen the negotiations to include Muslim and Jewish religious sites, as well. [34] This is reminiscent of the way the Vatican urges “religious freedom” laws for other faiths which, (as in Brazil), serves to neutralise their opposition to a concordat and pit the government against a much larger group.

Wherever religious real estate is not an issue, however, the Vatican finds allies against secularism among the most conservative Jewish groups, just as it does among Evangelicals, Orthodox Christians and Muslims. [35] If Israel's drift to the right continues, the differences between it and the Vatican may come closer to resembling a quarrel between two theocracies. [36]


Dave Pasinski, reader comment, 5 April 2012, appended to Drew Christiansen, S.J., “Holy Thursday: Agreement over the Cenacle?” America: The National Catholic Weekly, 5 April 2012.

* First “box”: The the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is said to be one of the tombs of Jesus. There are others, like the one in Srinagar, Kashmir which is venerated by the Ahmadis.

For the “spiritual defects” of other faiths, see The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the Church”, 29 June 2007.

For the use of incense, see “The Franciscans at the Holy Sepulchre”, Franciscan Cyberspot, 26 December 2001. 

And for “Monks Brawl at Christian Holy Site in Jerusalem”, AP, New York Times, 9 November 2008, see the article posted in its entirety at the end of this page. The scuffle was also caught on video.

1. “Vatican and Israel fail to agree Church status in Holy Land", AFP, 16 June 2010.

2. "Anglican Leader Visits Holy Land Christians”, Zenit, 25 February 2010.

3. “Pope to Mideast Youth: Don't Taste 'Bitter Sweetness' of Emigration“, Zenit, 15 September 2012. and earlier: “Pope to Mideast Christians: Stay in Homeland“, Zenit, 25 June 2010.

4. Matthew Price, “Bethlehem Christians flee tensions”, BBC News, 3 November 2006 .

5. "Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land", (accessed 6 September 2010).
“2009-2010 Report of Custody of the Holy Land: Friars Continue Supporting Holy Places, Christian Community”, Zenit, 21 March 2011.

6. “New Strategies Sought to Aid Holy Land Christians”, Zenit, 11 November 2010.

7. Franciscans determined to keep Christianity in Holy Land, 13 August 2014. 

8. Clyde Haberman, “Growing Power of Jerusalem's Ultra-Orthodox Makes Other Jews Uneasy”, New York Times, 19 July 1995.

Aron Heller, “Israel's ultra-Orthodox suddenly are outsiders”, AP, 12 March 2013.

9. Phoebe Greenwood, “Jerusalem mayor battles ultra-orthodox groups over women-free billboards”, Guardian, 15 November 2011.

10. "'I want to be a doctor, not a rabbi': how Israeli ultra-Orthodox are being drawn into work", Guardian, 10 September 2018.

11. “Israel's chief rabbis back anti-abortion group: 'Killing fetuses is murder'”, Haaretz, 2 January 2013.

12. Greg Myre, “Israeli Riddle: Love Jerusalem, Hate Living There”, New York Times,  13 May 2007.

13. “Cardinal Highlights Importance of Melkite Church”, Zenit, 2 September 2010.

See also the thoughtful article by Cardinal Tauran, former Vatican “foreign minister”, where he talks of a bridge and much more:  “Cardinal Tauran's Address on Holy Land Conference”, Zenit, 21 July 2011.

14. “Mideast tensions: Catholic Prelate Plans Hostage Mission in Iraq”, Reuters, 18 November 1990.

15. Oriana Fallaci, “I Find it Shameful” (“Sull'antisemitismo”), Panorama, 18 April 2002.

16. John L. Allen, “And tonight’s guest is … Vatican plays host to an uneasy world”, National Catholic Reporter, 21 February 2003.

17. For instance, Capucci has held talks with the Iranian foreign minister in 1997 and the president of Syria in 2008.

18. “Meeting with Palestinian Authorities, Address of Pope Francis”, Bethlehem, 25 May 2014.

19. The only channel between the State of Palestine and the Holy See is through the Apostolic Delegation located in occupied East Jerusalem, Palestinian News Network, 28 May 2014.

20. “Diplomacy: The pope and the Palestinians”, Jerusalem Post, 24 May 2015.

21. “What's Happening With Israel-Vatican Relations”, Interview With Father David Jaeger by Mariaelena Finessi, Zenit, 20 January 2010.

The Fundamental Agreement was signed on Dec. 30, 1993, and came into force March 10, 1994. It was followed by the agreement on the recognition of the civil effects of ecclesiastical legal personality, signed on Nov. 10, 1997, which came into force on Feb. 3, 1999.

22. Ari Rabinovitch, “Israel and Vatican negotiating over holy sites”, Reuters, 18 January 2010.

23. “Vatican, Israel joust over Jerusalem site”, Los Angeles Times, 23 December 2009.

24. Daniel Estrin, “Vatican, Israel Spar Over Disputed Last Supper Site”, NPR, 5 April 2012.

25. "Bishops Visit Holy Land in Wake of the 'Arab Spring' ", National Catholic Register, 17 January 2012.

26. Arieh Cohen, “Influential US MP tells Bush: let’s ask Israel to reach accord with Holy See”, AsiaNews, 20 June 2006, p. 5.

27. “Israel not seizing Church assets”, JTA, 9 June 2009.

28. “Le cardinal Tauran sur Al Jazeera : 'Éviter le choc des ignorances' ”, La Croix, 15 March 2012.

29. “What's Happening With Israel-Vatican Relations”, Interview With Father David Jaeger by Mariaelena Finessi, Zenit, 20 January 2010. 

30. Bishop William Shomali, auxiliary to the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, quoted in “Prelate: Jerusalem Can't Belong to Just One State”, Zenit, 12 October 2010. 

31. On the final communiqué of the first Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops in Rome and the remarks of the Melkite Archbishop, Cyrille Salim Bustros, see: 
Rachel Donadio, “Bishops at Meeting Urge Israel to End Its Occupation of Palestinian Territories”, New York Times, 23 October 2010.

32. Talkbacks for: Vatican synod calls for end to Israel's 'occupation', 101. What is the motivation? Jerusalem Post, 23 October 2010.

33. Anthony Shadid, “In the Mideast, No Politics but God’s”, New York Times, 23 October 2010.

34. “Jerusalem holy sites 'need special status': cardinal”, AFP, 2 December 2011.

35. “Vatican Archbishop calls for alliance with Muslims and Jews against equal marriage”, Pink News, 28 April 2012.

36. Avraham Burg, “Israel’s Fading Democracy”, New York Times, 4 August 2012. 

Monks brawl at Christian holy site in Jerusalem
Associated Press, 9 November 2008.

(AP)  JERUSALEM – Israeli police rushed into one of Christianity's holiest churches Sunday and arrested two clergyman after an argument between monks erupted into a brawl next to the site of Jesus' tomb.

The clash between Armenian and Greek Orthodox monks broke out in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, revered as the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

The brawling began during a procession of Armenian clergymen commemorating the 4th-century discovery of the cross believed to have been used to crucify Jesus.

The Greeks objected to the march without one of their monks present, fearing that otherwise, the procession would subvert their own claim to the Edicule — the ancient structure built on what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus — and give the Armenians a claim to the site.

The Armenians refused, and when they tried to march the Greek Orthodox monks blocked their way, sparking the brawl.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police were forced to intervene after fighting was reported. They arrested two monks, one from each side, he said.

"We were keeping resistance so that the procession could not pass through ... and establish a right that they don't have," said a young Greek Orthodox monk with a cut next to his left eye.

The monk, who gave his name as Serafim, said he sustained the wound when an Armenian punched him from behind and broke his glasses.

Father Pakrat of the Armenian Patriarchate said the Greek demand was "against the status quo arrangement and against the internal arrangement of the Holy Sepulcher." He said the Greeks attacked first.

Archbishop Aristarchos, the chief secretary of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate, denied his monks initiated the violence.

After the brawl, the church was crowded with Israeli riot police holding assault rifles, standing beside Golgotha, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, and the long smooth stone marking the place where tradition holds his body was laid out.

The feud is only one of a bewildering array of rivalries among churchmen in the Holy Sepulcher.

The Israeli government has long wanted to build a fire exit in the church, which regularly fills with thousands of pilgrims and has only one main door, but the sects cannot agree where the exit will be built.

A ladder placed on a ledge over the entrance sometime in the 19th century has remained there ever since because of a dispute over who has the authority to take it down.

More recently, a spat between Ethiopian and Coptic Christians is delaying badly needed renovations to a rooftop monastery that engineers say could collapse.

Go to Notanant menuWebsite accessibility

Access level: public

This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you agree to our use of cookies: OK