This is the kind of clash that can easily turn into an international storm likely to sully Israel’s image — unless a way will be found to solve the problem, elegantly and quickly. It is hard to believe that the basis of the story, which threatens to reach world leaders within days, is in a small piece of paper — a water bill voucher of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. That’s it.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, has been considered one of the holiest and most important churches in the world since the fourth century. It is estimated that more than a million pilgrims visit the site every year; thus, it is also a significant tourist attraction. It seems that due to the church’s importance, authorities have never demanded to be paid for the water used in the church. No one really knows when this custom began but the Turks, the British and Jordanians adhered to this no-pay policy, as did the State of Israel. In 1969, the Jerusalem municipality tried to change this custom but after an exchange of correspondence between the church and municipality, then-mayor Teddy Kollek informed the Patriarch that he would not change the years-long tradition. Since then, even if there were people who disagreed with this decision, no attempts were made to levy water-payments on the church. That is, until recently.
A great financial tempest
About 15 years ago, the Gihon Co. was established and effectively replaced the Jerusalem municipality in providing water to the city’s residents. In March 2004, the new company sent the Holy Sepulchre Church a water-consumption payment voucher for 3.7 million shekel [almost $1 million]. The people running the church were convinced that this was some kind of error, and the Gihon people took no steps to advance collection of the money.
In recent months, the Gihon company began to put pressure on the heads of the church. By now the bill had risen to about nine million shekel — seven years of debts, plus interest and linkage to the cost of living. High-placed officials in several government ministries realized that they were looking at a time-bomb that could cause great harm to Israel’s [public image], so they rolled up their sleeves to try to solve the problem. The following officials attended meetings held in recent months between the sides: Ahuva Zaken, Tourism Ministry’s Senior Deputy Director-General; Dr. David Koren, advisor to Jerusalem’s mayor; and Cesar Margia, Interior Ministry's Christian Denominations Director. At the end of the day, their efforts to bridge the differences between the sides failed. Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III argued that he meticulously and promptly pays for the water consumption of all his churches and monasteries throughout the country — except for the Holy Sepulchre church, which enjoys an historical dispensation due to the importance of the site. The Gihon people, on their part, continued to insist on being paid.
Ten days ago, the Gihon took the unprecedented step of freezing the bank account of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. It is important to emphasize that this institution is a global one with extensive contacts over the entire world, and owns giant tracts of land throughout Israel.
The heads of the church claim that they received an express promise from Gihon not to adopt any unilateral measures, thus they viewed the freezing of their accounts as a declaration of war. The Patriarch draws upon this bank account to pay salaries to priests, to underwrite standing orders, and provide the ongoing funding of all the churches throughout the country. The lien on the account halted everything.
Within days, a large financial uproar began. The Patriarchate’s standing orders began to bounce — from the Israel Electric Corp., Bezeq [telephone], the Tel Aviv municipality, the Jerusalem municipality, the internet provider, the company operating Road 6, and more. The food suppliers to the church’s dining room announced that they broke off all contact, once the checks they received began to bounce. Ditto for the architect who was designing a school for the church in the North of the country. The last to break off contact was the Patriarchate’s vegetable supplier. “The church is completely paralyzed,” says a senior at the Patriarchate. “We can’t even pay for toilet paper, nothing. The Gihon company has declared war on us.”
“We conducted ourselves with great sensitivity toward them,” says a source in Gihon. “But it is not possible to exempt them and they must understand this point. The state of Israel is allowed to change the law. It could be that what the Patriarch is trying to do now, is arouse an uproar.”
A painful atmosphere descended on the Patriarchate this week [Oct. 28-Nov. 1]. On Sunday night [Oct. 28] a meeting was convened of the Greek Orthodox and Franciscan Patriarchs (who represent the Vatican in Israel) and the substitute Armenian Patriarch, who are all partners in the running of the Holy Sepulchre church. They decided to escalate the struggle. Yesterday afternoon [Nov. 1] the Greek Patriarch sent a protest letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. “The enforcement of this unjustified step undermines the holiness and offends the sensitivity with which the holy place should be treated. It changes the status quo, and also may lead to closing down the place for multitudes of pilgrims,” he wrote. “We call on you to intervene and halt this aggressive step.”
Representatives of the Patriarch are expected to leave Israel at the beginning of the week [Nov. 4-Nov. 6] to personally deliver letters to Russian President Vladimir Putin and to the Prime Ministers of Greece and Cyprus. An additional letter will be sent by mail to United States President Barack Obama. Patriarch Theophilos is expected to leave on Monday [Nov. 5] for a meeting in Jordan that had been planned in advance; he intends to deliver a similar message to King Abdullah.
“The arrogant, scathing and insensitive Gihon clerks are no longer welcome in the church,” says Vice Patriarch Metropolitan Isaacius. “We will no longer receive them here for meetings.”
“We demand that the Gihon company immediately cease providing water to the Holy Sepulchre Church,” Patriarch Theophilos said yesterday [Nov. 1] to [Maariv’s] Musaf Shabbat supplement. “We are not interested in receiving services from them and if they continue to run water to the Holy Sepulchre Church, they do this of their own accord. At the beginning of the week we will notify the pilgrims to bring bottles of water with them. If nothing changes then we intend to announce within a few days, our plans to close the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — the first time in hundreds of years.”
Yesterday [Nov. 1], the Patriarchate’s attorneys Renato Yarak and Dana Nissim Mishli submitted an application to the court to remove the lien.
Gihon’s response: “We have been conducting talks for a number of years with representatives of the Greek [Orthodox] Patriarchate and Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with the goal of brokering a debt arrangement for the water debt. Sources from the government and other authorities were involved in the talks. Over a thousand religious institutions operate in Jerusalem and pay their water bills on a routine basis. The Water Authority forbids the water corporations, including the Gihon, from exempting any client from paying its bills.
“Moreover, it was agreed with the Patriarchate that they would turn to the Ministry of the Interior in writing with the request to assume the church’s water debt and find a solution to the issue. But this has not been carried out to this very day. The Gihon has refrained from adopting superfluous measures such as disconnection of the water supply, in light of the sensitivity of the issue, and allows the continued operation of the site. Nevertheless, Gihon intends to take other enforcement measures until the church’s debt is settled. The Gihon management believes and hopes that the Greek Patriarchate will honor the commitments that it gave in meetings with the Gihon management and act to arrange payment as soon as possible.”