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Egyptian, Ethiopian churches clash over Deir al-Sultan in Jerusalem

A crisis between the Egyptian and Ethiopian churches erupted over the ownership of Deir al-Sultan in Jerusalem.
Ethiopian Christian pilgrims hold candles during an Ethiopian Orthodox ceremony of the "Holy Fire" at Deir Al-Sultan Church held on the roof of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem, April 30, 2016.

CAIRO — Two deputies in the Egyptian parliament — Amr Darwish and Imad Khalil — made urgent statements May 4 addressed to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in regard to what they described as “ongoing provocations by the Ethiopian monks toward the Egyptian monks in Jerusalem.”

In their statements, the parliamentarians demanded Shoukry to “inform them of the measures taken by his ministry to defend the rights of Egypt, and the rights of the Egyptian monks in Deir al-Sultan in Jerusalem.”

This comes in the wake of the renewed crisis at the Deir al-Sultan monastery in the Old City of Jerusalem after Ethiopian monks erected a tent and raised the flag of their country inside, Sky News Arabia reported April 30. They noted that the monastery is owned by the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, so this action has greatly angered the Egyptian monks.

As a result, the Egyptian monks gathered in the monastery to remove the tent and the Ethiopian flag, which caused light clashes with the Ethiopian monks. The security forces rushed in to calm the situation.

Egyptian and Ethiopian monks have for many years fought over Deir al-Sultan. In an article in Shorouk News in 2018, the media spokesman for the Egyptian Council of Churches, Father Rafiq Griesh, stated that there is a long history of legal and historical disagreement regarding the monastery’s ownership, although the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church has been the owner since the Saladin era in the 12th Century.

Antonios al-Orashalimi, secretary of the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of Jerusalem, told Al-Monitor, “This monastery has been a historic right of the Egyptian Coptic Church since the 12th Century. It remained so until the Israeli government assisted the Ethiopian monks on Easter in 1970, by changing its keys and administrative control over it.”

He added, “A case was filed before the Israeli Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the Egyptian monks in March 1971, but this ruling has not yet been implemented because the court had set a condition that the authorities have the right to implement the ruling in a timely manner according to the security situation. So the Israeli authorities exploit this condition as a pretext for not implementing the ruling, claiming that the situation is not stable enough.”

Speaking about the recent clashes, Orashalimi said, “The Ethiopian monks set up a tent inside the monastery every year, but this year they added Ethiopian flags, in an attempt to erase the identity of the monastery. The police came and forced them to remove these flags, but after the police left they raised the Ethiopian flag once again.”

He stressed, “We have contacted officials at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry as well as the Israeli authorities to prevent these frictions, and remove the tent and flag, which happened on May 5.”

Orashalimi added, “The Israeli authorities were asked to write an official letter stating that this incident where Ethiopian monks erected a tent and raised the Ethiopian flag represents a breach of the current status quo in the monastery and that it shall not be repeated again.”

Tarek al-Khawli, a member of the Egyptian parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, told Al-Monitor, “The Egyptian Coptic Church that owns Deir al-Sultan has all the legal documents that prove its ownership of the monastery, and what the Ethiopian monks did can only be described as thuggery, and trying to impose a new reality on the ground.”

He added, “Egypt can never waive its rights anywhere, and Ethiopian monks are no longer welcome in this monastery after they committed these provocative actions.”

Khawli explained, “For decades the Egyptian Coptic Church used to receive Ethiopian monks inside the monastery in the absence of shelter, but then they tried to control the monastery. Consequently, skirmishes broke out with the Egyptian monks.”

The monastery is one of the most important Arab holy sites located in East Jerusalem, specifically in the Christian Quarter next to the Queen Helen Coptic Orthodox Church, and the corridor leading to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

In late 2018, a crisis occurred between the Egyptian and Ethiopian churches over the ownership of Deir al-Sultan. At that time the Israeli authorities allowed Ethiopian monks to restore parts of the monastery without the Coptic Church's approval, which angered Egyptian Copts who organized a protest. The Israeli police arrested a monk and dozens of protesters among them.

In November 2018, the Egyptian Church issued a statement noting that “Deir al-Sultan is one of the monasteries of the Coptic Church outside Egypt. The monastery’s buildings and components indicate its Coptic identity, like all Coptic monasteries, and it is part of the property of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the Holy Land.”

Kamal Zakher, a Coptic journalist at Egypt’s El-Watan News, told Al-Monitor, “This crisis that is renewed every year needs political intervention and the Egyptian and Ethiopian churches need to interfere to resolve this. Such clashes and disagreements should never occur between monks in this historic and sacred place.”

He noted, “The importance of Deir al-Sultan in Jerusalem lies in its being a significant part of the historical properties of the Egyptian Church, and one of the main entrances to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.”

Zakher concluded, “The Egyptian and Ethiopian churches have ancient historical ties, and simple communication between them is sufficient to resolve this dispute, in light of the court ruling and documents proving the Egyptian Coptic Church’s right to this monastery.”

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