Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority on Monday said it had "no intention of advancing" a contentious plan to encompass Christian holy sites on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives in a national park following opposition from churches.
The Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem rises above Jerusalem’s Old City and its sites are holy to three monotheistic faiths.
Its slopes to the east of the Old City are studded with churches of Christian denominations that mark the traditional places of events in the life of Jesus.
The Armenian, Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches petitioned Israel’s environmental protection minister, whose department is in charge of the parks authority, in a letter last week.
The churches expressed the “gravest concern and unequivocal objection” to the plan to extend the Jerusalem Walls National Park, saying it would disrupt the long-standing state of affairs and aims to “confiscate and nationalise one of the holiest sites for Christianity and alter its nature”.
Farid Jubran, general counsel of the Catholic Church's Custody of the Holy Land, said that making church property part of a national park was “putting the control in the hands of people who have no other agenda but to wipe off any non-Jewish characteristic on this mountain”.
Shortly after the churches' outcry, the Nature and Parks Authority said it was freezing the plan, which was to be approved on March 2 by Jerusalem's planning committee.
The authority said it has “no intention of advancing the plan in the planning committee and it is not ready for discussion without co-ordination and communication with all relevant officials, including the churches, in the area”.
Israeli rights groups and peace campaigners denounced the plan as an attempt to marginalise Palestinian residents and increase the Jewish religious and national significance of the Mount of Olives.
In a joint statement, rights groups Bimkom, Emek Shaveh, Ir Amim and Peace Now said the plan was part of “various mechanisms used by Israel in East Jerusalem to entrench its sovereignty, to marginalise non-Jewish presence and to prevent much needed development of Palestinian neighbourhoods”.
Israel captured East Jerusalem and its Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites in 1967 and annexed it in a move that is not recognised by most of the international community.
The holy city is the emotional epicentre of the more than century-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and even minor changes to the fragile status quo in Jerusalem has the potential to erupt into violence.
The Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as capital of a future independent state, while Israel considers the city its united capital.