Delicate relations between Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem may undergo a crisis soon.
While other Christian denominations hold that Jesus was buried in the place on which the Church of the Holy Sepulcher stands (in Jerusalem’s Old City), the Protestants rely on modern descriptions that mention a hill and a garden. In 1883, British researcher Charles Gordon identified a large catacomb adjacent to a hill opposite Nablus Gate outside the wall of the Old City, as the Garden Tomb, now believed by Protestants to be Jesus’ burial site. According to Richard Meryon, director of the Garden Tomb, about a quarter of a million visitors come to the site every year.
In 2010, the Muslim Waqf began to enlarge the Muslim cemetery located only a few meters above the Garden Tomb. At first, the construction work did not interfere with the Christian site, but later on the Waqf erected a supporting wall of reinforced concrete about three meters above the Garden Tomb. During the construction work, concrete pieces began to collapse from the wall in the direction of the Christian site and endanger the visitors. In addition, liquid cement began to flow in the direction of the site.
Garden Tomb Association members hired the services of geotechnical consultant Aryieh Klein, in order to check the physical integrity of the structure. In his written expert opinion, Klein wrote that the walls will fail in an earthquake and, even without an earthquake, will not remain stable over time. He urgently recommended certain actions to be taken to strengthen the walls.
The situation worsened in April when the Waqf began to conduct burial ceremonies and to situate new graves directly over Jesus’ grave. According to the Association members, the Muslim graves impose much stress on the wall-system and endanger visitors to the Garden Tomb site. “People have to understand that we have a big theological and political problem here,” Meryon says. “We are not looking for battles, we are only concerned about the visitors. What will happen if the graves and walls collapse on the visitors who come here every day?”
Last week the Garden Tomb Association Committee submitted an emergency petition to the Jerusalem District Court to instruct the Waqf and the Jerusalem Municipality to stop all burial ceremonies at the site. In addition, the managers of the Garden Tomb request that a neutral expert be appointed to examine the facts on the ground, and determine if the Waqf’s expansions are indeed endangering the Garden Tomb. The petition, submitted by Attorney Michael Decker, states that, “the collapse of part or all of the wall may set off an unnecessary conflict between the Christians and the Muslims — a conflict that no-one knows where it will lead.”
The Waqf’s Head in Jerusalem Azzam Khatib responded, “The Muslim cemetery has existed for over a century. We built a fence between the cemetery and the Garden Tomb after being granted a permit by the Jerusalem Municipality. In the past, the people of the Garden Tomb tried to sue us in court and lost. We have no problem with a safety inspection. We are not harming the holiness of our Christian brothers in Jerusalem.”
The response of the Jerusalem Municipality was: “The Muslim cemetery operates in accordance with the law. We gave the permit for [expansion of] the graves after the city’s engineer performed a thorough examination and while holding a joint discussion between the representatives of the Garden Tomb and the Waqf.”