Religious tensions roiled anew on Mount Zion this week when police detained five of some dozens of enraged Jewish extremists who attempted to disrupt Pentecostal prayers held by hundreds of Greek Orthodox worshipers.
As the Greek Orthodox procession made its way on Monday to the compound that houses the Cenacle, the presumed site of the Room of the Last Supper, and the presumed Tomb of King David, the Jewish demonstrators with flowing earlocks and large knitted yarmulkes screamed, booed and blew shofars at the worshipers.
As the procession made its way up the narrow stairs to the Cenacle, Jewish demonstrators, held back by Border Police and riot control teams, could be heard shouting: ‘We will tear down this abomination!’ and, ‘you are evil!’
The procession was led by Kuwwas, the traditional guardians of Christian holiness, wearing crimson fez-like hats. They pounded wooden staffs on the ancient stone walkways to make way for the bishop, the head of the local church.
Resplendent in heavy white robes embroidered in gold thread, the bishop was followed by scores of priests and religious officials, all dressed in long back head gear, and hundreds of pilgrims, all chanting liturgies in Greek.
At the height of the ceremony, a small group from the Greek Orthodox, led by the bishop, came down the stairs and entered the Tomb of King David, escorted by the police. At this, the Jewish protestors grew more frenzied. ‘The Jewish people live forever!’ King David lives forever!’ one screamed. ‘May the name of your so-called God be blotted out forever,’ cursed another. ‘Nazi,’ someone screamed at the police.
Seemingly oblivious to the crowd, the Greek Orthodox worshipers stayed in the Tomb only a few moments and then went back up the stairs.
A man dressed in ultra-Orthodox garb, who would only give his name as ‘Tzvi from Jerusalem,’ stood by with tears in his eyes.
‘It hurts me that they are letting these goyyim (non-Jews) come here,’ he said. ‘It hurts me that these evil men are being allowed to contaminate our holy sites. And it hurts me even more that the police, led by our Jewish government, are allowing them to do so.’
Scenes like this occur often on Mount Zion.
The 30-acre mountain that spreads out to the West from the Zion Gate holds a jumble of Christian churches from many different denominations, abandoned Muslim shrines, active and abandoned Jewish, Christian and Muslim cemeteries, and archaeological digs, along remnants of the War of Independence and the Six-Day War.
Across the conquests through the centuries, by Christians, Muslims, British, and, most recently, by Israel, members of various religious faiths have lived here together, sometimes in peace, at times in war, and most often according to carefully-set arrangements between them.
Mount Zion was central to Israeli national and religious observance following the War of Independence, because it was the only site in East Jerusalem held by Israel and because it offered views into the Old City and its sacred sites, held off-limits by the Jordanians to Jews and Israelis. The Mount was subsequently neglected after the Six-Day War, when the Old City was returned to Israeli control.
But in recent years, various Jewish groups have tried to reclaim the centrality of Mount Zion. Fueled by religious zealotry, some of them are hill-top youth prevented by security authorities from being in the West Bank, and have instead made Mount Zion their home.
Tensions have increased particularly since a visit by Pope Francis in 2014, when rumors circulated that Israel intends to cede parts of Mount Zion, including David’s Tomb, to the Vatican and other Christian institutions.
Israeli officials have repeatedly denied these rumors.
The extremists aren’t convinced, though.
‘There are Jews who would sell away that that is most precious to the Jewish people,’ says one of the young activists. ‘They have forgotten what it means to be Jewish. To be proud and defend the land. We will be the defenders.’
Part of these Jewish extremists’ plans includes defacing Christian churches and their property, desecrating Christian cemeteries, and spitting on and verbally accosting priests and monks.
According to activists from ‘Window on Mount Zion,’ a project sponsored by the Jerusalem Intercultural Center and Search for Common Ground, there has been relative calm over the past few months, thanks in part to police station established on Mount Zion last year.
According to various agreements, Christians are entitled to observe communal worship in the Cenacle five times a year, including the Pentecost. For individual prayer, the room is open to all. King David’s Tomb, which has unofficially been turned into a synagogue, is open for Jewish communal and individual prayer at all times.
This week, the trouble began well before the Greek Orthodox observance. There are three observances of Pentecost in Jerusalem, and the Armenians celebrated theirs on Sunday afternoon.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, several Jewish extremists barricaded themselves in David’s Tomb, apparently mistakenly believing the Armenians would be granted the right to enter David’s Tomb – which, in fact, is part only of the Greek Orthodox tradition. The protesters were removed, detained, and issued restraining orders banning them from the site.
But others returned early on Monday morning and tried once again to take control over the site, and by 7 A.M., dozens had already gathered near the scene. In carefully choreographed arrangements, police allowed early morning Jewish prayers on Monday morning, then closed the tomb to visitors until after the Greek Orthodox prayer and set up security perimeters.
In prior coordination with the police, Rabbi Aaron Yitzhak Stern from Bnei Brak, unofficially appointed by adherents as the ‘Rabbi of Mount Zion,’ removed the Torah scrolls from David’s Tomb then returned them after the Christians had concluded their prayers. Also in coordination with police, the Greek worshipers did not bring any Christian symbols, icons, or incense into the Tomb.
Some two dozen volunteers from Window on Mount Zion were visibly present in their distinctive yellow vests. Project coordinator Merav Horowitz-Stein said they provided ‘another set of eyes, and individuals who can try to reason with the extremists from any side and explain the situation to the tourists.’
Police acknowledged that the volunteers, who tried to engage the protestors in discussion and explain the commotion to foreigners, played a crucial role in maintaining the relative calm.
In Christian belief, Pentecost marks the fiftieth day after the Last Supper, on which the Holy Spirit entered each of the Holy Apostles. Teaching them to speak in foreign languages, the Spirit instructed the Apostles to spread the world of Christianity throughout the world. To many, the holiday thus marks the actual founding of the Christian Church.
‘The tradition of King David and the psalms is particularly significant to the Greek Orthodox,’ Yisca Harani, an expert in Christianity from the Yad Ben Tzvi Institute, explains to Haaretz. They come to the tomb as pilgrims.’
Harani says the Pentecost observance has much in common with the Jewish holiday of Shavu’ot. ‘There is a clear parallel between the way that the Jews believe they received the Torah from Moses from Mount Sinai and the way Christians believe that the Holy Spirit came down to the apostles. And both are based on the number fifty.
‘Observances like this provide an opportunity and a demand from the State of Israel to truly provide freedom of worship and equality for all,’ Harani says.
Several police officials noted with satisfaction that ‘overall, the events passed without incident’ and that the police had been able to find a ‘balance between the right to protest and the lack of any right to violently disrupt anyone else’s right to prayer.’
But as the crowds dispersed, one of the protesters made it clear that he and fellow demonstrators had no intention of backing down, shouting ‘The goyyim got their way this time. But they won’t the next time. King David lives forever! The people of Israel lives forever!’