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Israel, Christians Negotiate The Price Of Holy Water

Dec 5, 2012
Originally published on December 14, 2012 9:13 am

One of the holiest sites in Christendom has also been one of the most contested. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem lies on the site where Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified and buried.

Multiple Christian denominations share the church uneasily, and clerics sometimes come to blows over the most minor of disputes. The Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox all have a presence in the church.

But the most recent conflict at the 4th century church was over something entirely different: an unpaid water bill.

Last month, a dispute over water used by the church nearly closed its doors — until some high-level diplomacy defused the row.

Since the Ottoman Empire, the political authority in Jerusalem had traditionally waived the church's water bills — until the Israeli water company was privatized in 2003. Since then, the charge has grown to 9 million Israeli shekels, or $2.3 million, including interest.

Father Fakitsas Isidoros, superior of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, said the water company should settle the problem with the Jerusalem municipal government.

"We are willing, in the future, to pay the bills of water. But the [debts before the] 9 million [are] not our problem," he said. "They have to discuss with the municipality to solve the problem."

The dispute prompted the water company to freeze the patriarchate's local bank account, which Isidoros said caused even more headaches.

"Of course it's very difficult, because we cannot pay the salaries or blessings for our fathers — the electricity, the telephone bills here, everything," he said.

Finally, it took a meeting between Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Israeli President Shimon Peres to get the water company to waive the 9 million shekels and the church to promise to start paying for water.

Wajeeh Nuseibeh is the church's doorkeeper. In another twist, he is a Palestinian Muslim, whose family has opened and closed the church's heavy wooden doors every day for the past 1,300 years. He says that the church, located in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, provides more than just spiritual facilities.

"Most of the water [is] used by the pilgrims, because they are going to [the] washroom, and nobody pays for that," he says. "They enter through the church normally. We don't charge people to come into the church or go to the bathroom."

Indeed, the church's public toilets are among the few in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem's Old City.

Israel has pledged to act as a responsible custodian for all the holy places of all religions.

But Hana Bendcowsky, program director at the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, says that younger generations of Israeli Jews have grown up increasingly isolated from minority communities and unaware of what the pledge of custodianship requires of them.

"This is a new experience for us as Jews to be the majority here, and to be responsible for Christian communities," Bendcowsky says. "We used to be minorities among Christians, and suddenly we are the majority, and we have the responsibility over Christian minorities."

And yes, she says, that responsibility extends all the way down to the plumbing.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

One of the holiest sites in Christendom nearly closed its doors last month due to an unpaid water bill. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem is the site where Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified and resurrected. Officials had threatened to close church doors in protest over the dispute, but some high-level diplomacy came to play.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn has the story of an international scandal that was narrowly averted.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Franciscan monks sing and burn incense as crowds of pilgrims and tourists watch. The fourth century church is a living antiquity, jointly administered by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian apostolic priests. Since the Ottoman Empire, Jerusalem had traditionally waived the church's water bills until the water company was privatized in the 1990s. Since then, the charge has grown to nine million Israeli shekels or $2.3 million including interest.

Father Fakitsas Isidoros, superior of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, says the water company should settle the problem with the municipal government.

FATHER FAKITSAS ISIDOROS: We are willing, in the future, to pay the bills of water. But the debts before nine million is not our problem. They have to discuss with the municipality and to solve the problem.

KUHN: The dispute prompted the water company to freeze the patriarchate's local bank account, which Father Isidoros said has caused even more headaches.

ISIDOROS: Of course, it's very difficult because we cannot pay the salaries or blessings for our fathers - the electricity, the telephone bills here, everything.

KUHN: Finally, it took a meeting between Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Israeli President Shimon Peres to get the water company to waive the nine million shekels and the church to promise to start paying for water.

Wajeeh Nuseibeh is the church's doorkeeper. He's a Palestinian Muslim whose family has opened and closed the church's heavy wooden doors every day for the past 1,300 years. He explains that the church provides the city with more than just spiritual facilities.

WAJEEH NUSEIBEH: Most of the water is used by the pilgrims because they are going to washroom, and nobody pays for that. They enter into the church normally. We don't charging people to come into the church or if they go to bathroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLUSHING)

KUHN: Indeed, the church's public toilets are among the very few in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Israel's 1948 declaration of independence pledges that the new Jewish state will act as a responsible custodian of the holy places of all religions.

But Hana Bendcowsky, program director at the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, says that younger generations of Israeli Jews have grown up increasingly isolated from minority communities and unaware of what the pledge of custodianship requires of them.

HANA BENDCOWSKY: This is a new experience for us as Jews to be the majority here and to be responsible for Christian communities. We used to be minorities among Christian. And suddenly, we are the majority, and we have the responsibility over Christian minorities.

KUHN: In other words, she says, that responsibility extends all the way down to the plumbing. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.