Cardinal Tauran has thus called attention to the very real possibility in the future that Christian sites may be used for blackmail as a bargaining chip against Israel and the West, and that their security cannot be guaranteed by Palestinian governance. Indeed, one will recall the desecration of the Church of the Nativity in 2002, with Muslims seizing the site for 39 days, devouring the food supplies, and using Bibles as toilet paper:
Catholic priests in the church marking the spot where Jesus was believed to have been born said that during the five-week siege, Palestinians tore up some Bibles for toilet paper and removed many valuable sacramental objects, according to a May 15, 2002, report by the Washington Times.
[…] during the 2002 church siege, the muted complaints of Christians under the Muslim-dominated Palestinian Authority gained little traction.
The Palestinian gunmen, members of Yasser Arafat’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, seized church stockpiles of food and “ate like greedy monsters” until the food ran out, while more than 150 civilians went hungry, the Washington Times report said.
The indulgence lasted about two weeks into the 39-day siege, when the food and drink ran out, according to an account by four Greek Orthodox priests trapped inside. A church helper told the Times the quantity of food consumed by the gunmen in the first 15 days should have lasted six months.
Angry Orthodox priests showed reporters empty bottles of whiskey, champagne, vodka, cognac and French wine on the floor along with hundreds of cigarette butts.
“They should be ashamed of themselves. They acted like animals, like greedy monsters. Come, I will show you more,” said one priest, who declined to give his name.
Computers were taken apart and a television set dismantled for use as a hiding place for weapons.
There is more. The spectacle over the Palestinian status within UNESCO (a backdoor attempt at UN recognition) threatens to make sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre subject to blackmail and abuse as well. The Franciscans have stated opposition to UNESCO recognition of holy sites for fear that it could lead to “the nationalization of the shrines,” and that the functioning of those sites would degenerate from places of worship into tourist traps and museums.
And of course, there is also the very real risk that Muslims will do to those sites what they have done to so many non-Muslim places of worship, including the Hagia Sophia and the Church of St. John the Baptist in Damascus: turn them into mosques. “Jerusalem holy sites ‘need special status’: cardinal,” from Agence France-Presse, December 2:
Peace negotiations in the Middle East must tackle the issue of the status of the holy sites, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Vatican’s Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said Friday.
“There will not be peace if the question of the holy sites is not adequately resolved,” the Holy See’s former foreign minister said in response to a question on Jerusalem and the Israel-Palestinian problem at a Rome conference.
“Unfortunately, up to now, the question has never been on the negotiating table in Washington or in Jerusalem. It’s practically just the Holy See who is concerned about it,” he said.
Although critics claim the question of responsibility for Muslim or Jewish sites such as the Dome of the Rock or the Western Wall would complicate already difficult peace talks, Tauran says not discussing it “only puts the issue off”.
“The part of Jerusalem within the walls — with the holy sites of the three religions — is humanity’s heritage, as each has its roots there,” he said in reference to Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
“Let’s suppose that tomorrow part of Jerusalem belongs to a Palestinian state: one morning a group of fundamentalist Muslims could decide to build a mosque where the Holy Sepulchre stands,” he added.
Even though he is discussing a broader issue, it is that statement which he is likely to hear the most about.
The Vatican says the answer is to have the global community regulate the sites — and it favours handing the task to a “large group” of states, rather than placing it in the hands of the United Nations Security Council or Europe.
The sites’ well-being would still depend on the character and potential bias of that “large group of states.”
“The sacred and unique character of the area must be safeguarded and it can only be done with a special, internationally-guaranteed statute,” Tauran said.