Israel, Christians Negotiate The Price Of Holy Water | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

Israel, Christians Negotiate The Price Of Holy Water

Play associated audio

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/.

NPR

Vaccine Controversies Are As Social As They Are Medical

In writing her new book On Immunity, Eula Biss found that questions about vaccination touch on attitudes about environmentalism, citizenship and trust in the government.
NPR

European Activists Say They Don't Want Any U.S. 'Chlorine Chicken'

Most U.S. poultry is bathed in a little chlorine on the way to your plate. But that treatment is banned in Europe. Now "chlorinated chickens" are a sticking point in a trans-Atlantic trade deal.
NPR

GOP Candidate In Michigan's U.S. Senate Race Avoids Media

Michigan has an open seat because Democrat Carl Levin is retiring. GOP candidate Terri Lynn Land is running a low-key campaign. Democratic Rep. Gary Peters leads in polls, but the race is close.
NPR

Kids And Screen Time: Cutting Through The Static

One Los Angeles school is working technology into the learning process, while avoiding the traditional screen-time pitfalls.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.