When Jordan’s King Abdullah announced May 7 that he is planning to help fund the restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from his own funds, many were caught off guard. The announcement surprised church leaders in Jerusalem who have been unable to reach a funding agreement for fear that a church funding the restoration would make ownership claims to it.
Orthodox Church spokesman Father Issa Musleh enthusiastically welcomed the decision in a phone interview with Al-Monitor, saying, “The decision of His Majesty King Abdullah II is a dream come true. We have been trying for decades to find a way around the stalemate of who would fund the restoration.”
Wasfi Kilani, the executive director of the Hashemite Fund for the Restoration of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, told Al-Monitor that the king's contribution toward the restoration of the church is a “natural development as a result of the high degree of trust and appreciation all parties have for His Majesty.”
Kilani said, “Both the Palestinian leadership and the major church leaders expressed support and appreciation for the position of the king as custodian of both Islamic and Christian holy places in Jerusalem.”
He added that the current contribution comes as a follow-up to the statement made by the king in which he vowed to contribute a part of the Templeton Prize, which he received in 2018 and is worth 1.1 million British pounds ($1.4 million), toward the restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The donated amount is unknown.
Jordan’s news agency Petra reported May 7, “The Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem, All Palestine and Jordan Theophilos III thanked His Majesty King Abdullah on behalf of the holy land’s Christian community for covering the costs of the restoration of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem at his personal expense.”
According to Petra, Patriarch Theophilos III said that the donation reflects the “king’s personal commitment to the security and future of Jerusalem as the custodian of Islamic and Christian holy sites in the city.”
Simon Azazian, a researcher of the history of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, told Al-Monitor that Abdullah's involvement resolved a long-standing problem that has resulted in the deterioration of the church. “While any of the three major churches — Orthodox, Franciscans and the Armenians — can easily raise the needed funds to carry out the restoration, the other churches would then worry that those who fund the restoration somehow have extra powers and rights to administer it.”
Azazian, senior program director at the Palestinian Bible Society, believes that the king’s willingness to lead the funding of the church restoration would go a long way toward easing the tensions that would otherwise arise if one of the churches took the lead role.
Church sources told Al-Monitor that the restoration, which has yet to begin, would be very costly. But they expressed confidence that with the lead of the Jordanian king, the process will move forward with meetings to determine the details of the extent of the restoration, the budget and the mechanism needed.
Ramzi Khoury, the newly appointed head of the Palestinian Higher Presidential Committee of Church Affairs, called the gift “proof of the strong Islamic and Christian ties in the city.”
On May 8, Khoury told Jordan’s daily Al-Rai that the Palestinian leadership supports the Hashemite custodianship of holy places in Jerusalem and is opposed to any attempt that diminishes this role, noting that the Palestinian Central Council (PCC) will be meeting soon to evaluate all issues in light of the "deal of the century." He said, “The PCC might decide to totally separate from Israel. Our position with Jordan is very clear, namely to defend the holy places and the land and to strengthen the Christian and Muslim presence in Jerusalem.”
In the 18th century, two Palestinian Muslim families were made responsible for the keys of the church in order to avoid the interchurch bickering in regard to who owns the church and administers its affairs. The Joudeh and Nuseibeh families are responsible for opening and closing the church every day, and they have been doing so for decades. The Status Quo in the Holy Places agreement was codified by way of a decree by Ottoman Sultan Osman III in the 18th century, and continues to be accepted by all the churches and governing powers.
In 2016, Abdullah made a donation for the restoration of the tomb of Jesus. The king also contributed funds and lands for the restoration of the Baptism Site on the east bank of the Jordan River.
Historians and church leaders say that it has been 200 years since the holy grave in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was restored. Hanna Issa, a Palestinian Christian historian and head of the Islamic-Christian Commission in Support of Jerusalem and Holy Sites, told Al-Monitor that a combination of factors made it possible for the churches to agree to restore the grave.
Issa said, “There were many reasons why they agreed. The deterioration of the church had reached a dangerous level that required action and the recent moves between Catholics and Orthodox — which were reflected in the historic meeting in February 2016 between the Pope and the [Russian] Orthodox patriarch — also helped.”
Kilani said that in 2017, the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives was renovated by the Hashemite Fund and the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf. “While the Church of the Ascension is an Islamic Waqf property, all churches use it freely and this reflects the high level of coordination between the Islamic Waqf and the Jerusalem churches,” he noted.