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CHICAGO (ChurchMilitant.com) - Members of a 900-year-old order of Catholic knights are fighting to preserve access to Christian sites in the Holy Land.
Heirs to the first Crusaders, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is tasked with "all the activities and initiatives which are necessary to support the Christian presence in the Holy Land."
On October 22, the North Central Lieutenancy (division) uanimously approved "Perpetual Preservation of Access to Christian Sites," a resolution of support for the Christian presence in Jerusalem.
On Wednesday, Church Militant spoke with His Excellency, Sir Max Douglas Brown, head of the North Central Lieutenancy about the initiative.
The resolution, he explained, is a response to pleas for support by the patriarchs and heads of Churches of Jerusalem who view "the recent action of certain civil authorities in Israel" as "a systematic assault on the 'Status Quo'" and "an attempt to undermine the integrity of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Holy Land."
On August 1, the country's Central District Court ruled in favor of an Israeli right-wing group that allegedly convinced a local Greek Orthodox Church official to sell church property to them without the knowledge or approval of the patriarch.
Accusations of bribery and fraud marred the transaction, and the church sued, arguing the sale was invalid. On August 1, the Israeli Central District Court ruled against the Greek Orthodox Church, arguing that because money already had been exchanged, the sale was valid. The deal was allowed to stand.
A second point of concern is a draft law circulating in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. The bill would allow the government to commandeer church properties to protect residents from eviction by property developers.
These cases might be a cause for concern anywhere, but in a simmering city like Jerusalem, there is worry they indicate the so-called Status Quo is beginning to unravel.
The Status Quo describes a centuries-old arrangement regarding who controls a collection of holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Seven of the nine sites are Christian, and responsibility is shared between the various churches represented.
Under the terms of the Status Quo, any change to the site, no matter how small, must be approved by all parties; any detour from the arrangement is regarded as destabilizing.
On September 4, the churches of Jerusalem issued a collective response to the two cases. In a shared statement, the heads of the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Anglican and Lutheran churches declared:
We see in these actions a systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Holy Land and to weaken the Christian presence. ... We affirm in the clearest possible terms that a vital, vibrant Christian community is an essential element in the makeup of our diverse society and threats to the Christian community can only increase the troubling tensions that have emerged in these turbulent times. ... Such attempts to undermine the Christian community of Jerusalem and the Holy Land do not affect one Church only; they affect us all, and they affect Christians, and all people of good will around the world. ... We cannot stress strongly enough the very serious situation that this recent systematic assault on the "Status Quo" has had on the integrity of Jerusalem and on the well-being of the Christian communities of the Holy Land.
Through its resolution, Brown told Church Militant, the North Central Lieutenancy intends to add its voice to those in Jerusalem and to raise awareness elsewhere "that our access to Christian holy sites is in jeopardy."
"As good Christians, many of us have been so intent on hoping and wishing that the Israelis and Palestinians reach some sort of peace agreement between themselves that we have failed to look after our own interests in the Holy Land," he observed.
But "make no mistake about it," Brown added. "Both sides to this dispute like and depend on our tourist dollars, but they do not necessarily want Christians living in the Holy Land. ... [T]he number of Christians in the Holy Land has dropped over the past years from about 20 percent to less than 2 percent."
"Christians are being persecuted all over the Middle East," he said. "Many Christians here in the United States, however, shrug off this ethnic cleansing because it doesn't seem to affect them. 'How does this concern me?' they ask. As long as they can visit their holy sites in Israel, what does it matter?"
"Now, with the ever increasing moves on the part of the government of Israel to obstruct access to Muslims to their holy sites, what is to prevent the same government from encroaching on the rights of Christians? " he asked, adding, "We simply need to rise up as one united group of Christians and say, 'Enough! We are Christians. We are followers of Jesus Christ, but we will not be dismissed, discarded, ignored or bullied.'"
Brown emphasized that the Equestrian Order "is neither anti-Israel nor anti-Arab Palestinian."
"We are, however, emphatically pro-Christian. We do not believe we can rely on others to defend our rights as Christians to have free and unfettered access to our own precious Christian sites in the future. That is our responsibility."
He continued, "Certainly, it is our responsibility as members of an Order which is charged with defending the rights of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. ... We only wish to assert our right as Christians to have access to our own religious sites."
"We dearly want peace," Brown added. "As knights and ladies of the order, we are called upon to pray each day for peace in Jerusalem."
After tensions flared over increased Israeli security measures at the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary in July, the Vatican reiterated its support for "a comprehensive, just and lasting solution to the question of the City of Jerusalem."
In an address to the U.N. Security Council, Msgr. Simon Kassas, Chargé d'Affaires of the Vatican's mission to the United Nations, said the Holy See affirmed Jerusalem's need for an "internationally guaranteed" special status to guarantee "the secure, free and unhindered access to the holy places by the faithful of all religions and nationalities."
Additionally, Kassas said, "Christian communities have existed for over 2,000 years in that region and have peacefully coexisted with the other communities," he said. "The Holy See urges the international community, through the Security Council, not to forget them."
The Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem is among the oldest in the Catholic Church, dating back more than nine centuries, to the time of the First Crusade.
Its mission, Brown told Church Militant, is "to strengthen our members in the Catholic faith, contribute to the good works of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, propagate the Faith in the Holy Land and uphold the rights of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land."
The Equestrian Order counts more than 30,000 members around the world, with some 1,300 in the North Central Lieutenancy, a division encompassing Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.
"We support and defend the Catholic Church in the Holy Land," Brown said. "That is our mission. It is a mission of peace and good will. Our membership consists of orthodox Catholics. We accept the eternal truths of the Church."
He continued, "Non-members can help by becoming better informed ... about what is really happening in the Holy Land. In this regard, they will not be educated by the mainstream media. ... They need to hear from their fellow Catholics."