President Reuven Rivlin on Monday, December 30, held the traditional reception for the heads of the Christian denominations in Israel to celebrate the new year at the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem, and used the occasion to invite the Pope to visit and participate in the 2020 official dedication ceremony of Land of the Monasteries, an extensive project to make old churches and monasteries accessible to Christians and pilgrims from around the world.
“As guardians of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, the State of Israel is committed to religious freedom for all,” the president noted. “As part of Israel’s commitment to ensure access to holy sites, I am happy to update you that we are about to finish clearing all of the mines from the Land of the Monasteries at the very beginning of the coming year. Already the number of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land is increasing each year. Just this year, close to 900,000 pilgrims visited the Land of Monasteries. We are working hard to complete the development of the entire area by the end of 2020.”
“This project will be good for all – Christians, Muslims, and Jews; Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians,” Rivlin continued. “We must remember that we are not doomed to live together, we are destined to live together, and we therefore must advance initiatives which will benefit all of us.”
Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri; Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem; the acting Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem; the representative of the Armenian Patriarchate; head of the Franciscan Order in Jerusalem, the Custos of the Holy Land; and the Melkite Greek Catholic Church Archeparch of Akka (Akko) participated in the event.
“It is no surprise that both the Jewish and Christian traditions share holidays of light – the light of faith and hope, even in the face of darkness,” the president told his distinguished guests at the beginning of his remarks.
The president told the heads of the denominations about the International Leaders’ Forum that will convene soon, saying, “In a few weeks I will host leaders from around the world at Yad Vashem, to commemorate seventy-five years to the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and to call on all humanity, to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, and fight anti-Semitism and hate. I deeply appreciate the recent remarks of Pope Francis, that anti-Jewish persecution is neither human nor Christian, as well as the statements of other Christian leaders against rising anti-Semitism. These voices and messages are crucial for humanity. Just like anti-Jewish prejudice is not Christian, anti-Christian prejudice is not Jewish. We must recommit ourselves to countering all acts of hatred, incitement and violence, between religious communities in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Sadly, again this year, Christians were killed in the Middle East, simply for keeping their faith. Jerusalem must serve as a model for peace and harmony between religions.”
The Land of the Monasteries project is a wide-ranging initiative to promote religious tourism to the monasteries and churches along the Jordan River close to the site where, according to Christian tradition, John the Baptist baptized Jesus and his disciples. In recent years, the president has promoted the project to welcome more pilgrims to the site and to develop facilities for visitors from around the world. From the baptismal site and southwards, there is an area of important buildings – churches, chapels and monasteries – which give the area its name. The area, which has great religious and historical significance for Christians around the world, has been developed and restored in recent years ahead of its opening to visitors. As part of the initiative, mines laid in the 1970s, which prevented access to the area of the churches, have been cleared.
Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri commented: “Freedom of worship and religion in Jerusalem, the Holy City, will be preserved for all and we will continue to preserve Jerusalem as the Holy City for all religions. Unfortunately, we live in an era when anti-Semitism raises its head around the world, most recently in the terrible incident in Monsey, New York. We must all fight anti-Semitism wherever it occurs, and we must all reject and condemn it in a loud and clear voice against any outbreak of anti-Semitism and violence.”