JERUSALEM (LifeSiteNews) — A controversial plan by Israeli authorities to expand a national park onto the Mount of Olives, the site of numerous key events in the life of Christ, has been canceled due to joint protests from Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian leaders.
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), which had been promoting the project, said that extending the Jerusalem Walls National Park was “designed to restore long-neglected lands and better preserve historical landscapes, and that it will not harm the church properties incorporated into the national park.”
The proposed extension would have incorporated a large section of the Mount of Olives — where Christ taught the 12 apostles, prayed at its foot in the garden of Gethsemane during His Passion, and ascended into Heaven — along with parts of the Kidron and Ben Hinnom Valleys.
The INPA’s plan was due to be heard by Jerusalem’s Local Planning and Construction Committee on April 10, but was moved up to March 2.
Religious leaders publicly protested the plans in an open letter addressed to Israeli Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, whose office oversees the INPA.
The Catholic Church’s Custos of the Holy Land Francesco Patton, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theopolis III, and Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian wrote of their “gravest concern and unequivocal objection” to the plan.
Noting how the Mount of Olives is “one of the holiest sites for Christianity,” the signatories slated the proposed national park extension as a move “to confiscate and nationalize one of the holiest sites for Christianity and alter its nature.”
This is a brutal measure that constitutes a direct and premeditated attack on the Christians in the Holy Land, on the churches and on their ancient, internationally guaranteed rights in the Holy City.
The three leaders also wrote that “this is not the first time the INPA is playing a hostile role against the Churches and Christian presence in the Holy Land.” They referenced a growing tendency in “recent years” to “eliminate any non-Jewish characteristics of the Holy City by attempting to alter the Status Quo in this holy mountain.”
While previous attempts had failed in this aim, the three signatories suggested that the plan was a repeated attempt to alter the status quo. “After their attempts failed they resorted to statutory powers by advancing a plan to declare vast parts of the mountain as a national park.”
The open letter was sent to a number of Consul Generals, including those from the U.K., the U.S., France, and Italy, along with Archbishop Adolfo Tito Yllana, the Vatican’s Apostolic Delegate in Jerusalem.
Visiting U.S. House Democrats also raised concerns on the issue to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a meeting February 17.
Following the open letter, INPA backed down from its proposed extension of the national park. The agency declared that the plans would be put on hold, and that it had “no intention of advancing the plan in the planning committee and it is not ready for discussion without coordination and communication with all relevant officials, including the churches, in the area.”