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Gary Burge

Who Owns the Holy Land?

With this article we continue our series on Israel, Palestine, and the biblical understanding of "the land." The first installment in the series, Gerald McDermott's "The Land: Evangelicals and Israel," appeared in the March/April 2003 issue.

A few years ago on a research visit to Jerusalem, I decided to investigate a controversy that continues to simmer today in the Christian quarter of the old walled city. Jewish settlers had worked a scheme to rent a church building under false pretenses. About 150 settlers quickly moved in, hoisted Israeli flags atop the building, covered over Christian symbols on its façade, spray-painted numerous blue stars of David on its walls, and claimed the real estate to be theirs. Soldiers protected them from the protests of Greek Orthodox priests, who argued that no such deal had been made. The frustration of Jerusalem's mayor was matched by that of the Orthodox Patriarch, who led marches around the building in front of TV cameras. It was Holy Week in Jerusalem, and passions were running high.

It wasn't difficult for me to find the building. The flags and the soldiers—unusual in this part of the city—signaled that something irregular had happened. Soon two teenage boys from the settlement rounded the corner and took it as their mission to explain to a visitor what this scene meant. I asked why the Palestinian Christians were so unhappy.

"We have bought what is ours anyway and how we did it doesn't matter," they said.

I asked if it were not true that the Greek Orthodox Church had owned this property for hundreds of years.

"It doesn't matter," they answered. "God has given us this country and this city and Jews can live anywhere."

I reflected aloud on the fact that Arab Christians and Muslims couldn't buy land in the Jewish Quarter just a short walk down the road.

Their response was swift: "We are only taking what is ours by right. These people have no rights to be in this city. God gave this land to Abraham and we are his descendants. Everything ...

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