vatican insider

King Abdullah II of Jordan funds Holy Sepulchre restoration work

“His Majesty King Abdullah II has issued a Royal Benefaction (makruma) to provide for the restoration of Jesus’ Tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, at His Majesty’s personal expense.” The news was announced by Jordanian press agency Petra, which says that the Hashemite Court sent an official letter to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III. It will therefore be a Muslim sovereign and direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who will foot part of the bill for the restoration of the niche in the Holy Sepulchre, the place of Jesus’ burial and resurrection in Jerusalem, which has, for centuries, been the most venerated Christian shrine in the world. 

The restoration project was announced two weeks ago – the day before Easter for the western world – by the three Christian denominations which for historic reasons hold joint jurisdiction of Jerusalem’s most important church: the Greek Orthodox, the Latins (represented by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land) and the Armenians. Restoration work is needed because of the progressive alteration of the mortars as a result of condensed moisture from the breath of thousands of pilgrims and candle smoke. The work is based on a specific project carried out by the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) which all parties agree on: the work should take eight months, with completion expected at the start of 2017. Until yesterday, there had been talk about a restoration project being financed by the three denominations, public contributions disbursed by the Greek government and private benefactors.  

The announcement from Amman now changes the game and was immediately and warmly welcomed by Patriarch Theophilos III who is head of the largest Christian community in the Holy Land. “His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III also said that His Majesty King Abdullah embodies in deed, and not only in word, the shared living of Muslims and Christians all over the world and particularly in the Holy Land,” Petra news agency reports. “Jordan’s role in protecting Christian existence in the Holy Land is clear and undeniable,” the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem continued, “King Abdullah spearheads the efforts of all Jordanians to sow the seeds of love and brotherhood between Muslims and Christians. We are reaping the fruits of these efforts in this age when sectarian wars are burning entire countries as can plainly be seen.” 

There is, however, also a political aspect to King Abdullah’s choice, which is of some significance. Theophilos III himself underlined this, recognising the Hashemite sovereign as “Guardian and Custodian of the Christian and Muslim Holy Sites in Jerusalem”. For the King of Jordan, financing the restoration of the Holy Sepulchre is a way to affirm his prerogatives over the holy places which until the Six-Day war of 1967 were under Jordanian sovereignty. Jerusalem’s holy places include not only Christian sites but also the Muslim mosque of al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock on the flat space above the Western Wall. The same pace treaty, which was signed between Israel and Jordan in the 90’s recognises the historic role of the Hashemite Kingdom in writing, in practice, however, its actual implementation in Jerusalem, which the Jewish state considers its sole and indivisible capital, it has become an increasingly heated subject in the “Holy City”. 

So there are various plans and motivations that contributed to King Abdullah II’s decision. It is also worth noting that in his statement, Theophilos III explicitly links Jordan’s donation to the Pact of Umar, the agreement reached in 637, when Jerusalem was conquered by the Arabs. On that occasion, Caliph Umar, Muhammad’s second successor, respected the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, leaving it as a Christian place of worship instead of turning it into a mosque. It is thanks to this first important gesture made by the Caliph, that the niche of the Holy Sepulchre has survived as a Christian place of worship in the face of the many vicissitudes Jerusalem has faced throughout its history. Today – at a time when a so-called caliph is desecrating Christian sites in Syria and Iraq – reaffirming the Pact of Umar, is intended as a very clear message to the Muslim world, starting from its history and identity.