Newly restored shrine at Jesus’ tomb reopened in Jerusalem

 

The ornate shrine surrounding what is believed to be Jesus’ tomb was reopened at a ceremony in Jerusalem on Wednesday (March 22) following nine months of delicate restoration work.

Religious leaders opened the ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built at the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried.

Centuries of candle smoke and visiting pilgrims had left the 19th-century ornate edicule or shrine discoloured and almost black.

Parts of it were also coming loose, with warnings that it was structurally unsound and posed a risk to the millions of pilgrims who visit the site every year.

Israeli authorities briefly closed it in 2015 over security fears.

Following a US$3.7 million (S$5.1 million) renovation led by the church’s three main Christian denominations, the tomb has been painstakingly restored to its former glory – including a warm reddish-yellow colouring.

“Before this the monument was black,” chief renovator Antonia Moropoulou told AFP at the site. “This is the actual colour of the monument, the colour of hope.”

Unlike other parts of the church, which were renovated between the 1960s and 1990s, the edicule had been neglected.

Mr Moropoulou explained that they had systematically dismantled, cleaned and renovated almost all of the edicule, including the columns and upper and inner domes.

A window has been installed to allow pilgrims to see the bare stone of the ancient burial cave for the first time. The new structural integrity means a protective cage installed 70 years ago by the British is no longer necessary.

“The deformations of the holy edicule are addressed and the structural integrity is assured,” Mr Moropoulou said.

Mr Samuel Aghoyan, the superior of the Armenian Church at the Sepulchre which co-financed the project, said that after the renovation the edicule looked “like a brand new building”.

DRAMATIC MOMENT

In October, perhaps the most dramatic moment in the renovation occurred when the cave thought to be the tomb of Jesus was opened for the first time in centuries.

Marble slabs were removed to allow for the chamber’s reinforcement. They found a top slab dating from the era of the Crusades, indicating that the tomb had not been opened for 700 years, Mr Moropoulou said.

Underneath they found another from the era of Constantine the Great, the emperor who began the Roman empire’s transition to Christianity in the fourth century AD.

“When we opened the slabs we discovered within the internal masonry all the layers of history – from Constantinian to Byzantine, to Crusaders to Renaissance,” Mr Moropoulou said.

Whether the site is indeed the place of Jesus’s burial has long been a matter of dispute.

Some Christians believe he was buried in the Garden Tomb, outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, but Mr Moropoulou said their findings supported the Sepulchre as the location.

Asked if the slabs supported the argument that Jesus was buried there, she said it was “not a matter of an argument”.

“It is a matter of revealing a tomb which is alive and which is influencing us working here and all the world.”

The work is not the end of plans to renovate the church.

Mr Aghoyan said they have “tentative” plans to fix the basement of the edicule as well as the “entire floor of the church”.

Such work would require around US$6 million, according to estimates.

The Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations share custody of the church, but disputes between the three have led to renovations being delayed for decades.

Mr Aghoyan admitted there were tensions between the churches at times. “We are not in love with each but we love each other,” he said with a smile.

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Israel president Reuven Rivlin refuses to pardon jailed former PM Ehud Olmert

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Israeli President Reuven Rivlin today rejected a request for clemency by jailed ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert, who is serving a 27-month prison sentence for corruption, his office said. Olmert, who was premier between 2006-2009, was convicted of graft and entered prison in February 2016.

The president noted that the grounds for the request — including Olmert’s contributions to Israel over the years — were known to the court when it sentenced the former prime minister. Rivlin also said in a statement that Olmert was due to face a parole committee, which would discuss his request to have his sentence shortened by a third.

If the parole board shortens Olmert’s sentence, Rivlin said he could consider a pardon that would allow the 71-year-old to avoid being considered a convict after he is released. Olmert is Israel’s first former premier to serve jail time. He resigned as prime minister in September 2008 after police recommended he be indicted for graft, but remained in office until March 2009, when Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in to the post, which he has held ever since.

Olmert won international acclaim for relaunching peace efforts with the Palestinians at the Annapolis conference in the United States in 2007, but they failed to bear fruit and the corruption charges against him have come to define his legacy.

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Jewish youth arrested in Israel over anti-Semitic threats abroad AFP

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A Jewish youth was arrested in Israel on Thursday on suspicion of making dozens of anti-Semitic threats in countries around the world, police said.

Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said the suspect was “a resident of the south (of Israel) from the Jewish community”.

Police said the suspect was 19, but gave no further identifying details. Israeli media said he was a dual Israeli-US national.

“The investigation began in several countries at the same time, in which dozens of threatening calls were received at public places, events, synagogues and community buildings that caused panic and disrupted events and activities in various organisations,” a police statement said.

It said that the investigation was undertaken in cooperation with the FBI “as well as other police organisations from various countries.”

Israeli authorities did not directly link the arrest with a wave of more than 100 bomb threats against US Jewish organisations since the beginning of the year.

“We hope that this investigation will help shed light on some of the recent threats against Jewish institutions, which have caused great concern both among Jewish communities and the Israeli government,” Israeli public security minister Gilad Erdan said in a statement. AFP

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Jews, Israelis fear fallout from bomb hoax arrest

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Israel’s arrest of a Jewish teenager accused of masterminding dozens of anti-Semitic threats could encourage racism and ease pressure on US President Donald Trump to tackle anti-Semitism, Jewish groups have warned.

Far-right groups claimed vindication that attacks previously blamed on rightwingers and alleged hatred resulting from Trump’s election may actually have been carried out by a young Jewish American Israeli.

Jewish organisations and Israeli media said the arrest was likely to boost conspiracy theories, while others worried it would weaken responses to a rise in anti-Semitic attacks in the US.

More details emerged Friday about the suspect, who holds dual Israeli American citizenship, though identifying details are subject to a gag order.

He was arrested Thursday in Israel and accused of making dozens of anti-Semitic bomb threats in the United States and elsewhere, including one against a major airline.

His lawyer said he is 18 and suffers a brain tumour that may cloud his judgement.

His health prevented him attending public school or doing mandatory military service, she said.

Over the past two to three years, Israeli police said he carried out a series of hoax threats from his family home in southern Israel.

In February 2015, he is alleged to have made a bomb threat against Delta Airlines, forcing a plane to carry out an emergency landing.

“In a short time, a large number of Jews are going to be slaughtered. Their heads are going to be blown off,” one of the threats read, according to a recording obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper said Friday the net started to tighten after a threat in New Zealand in 2016, with police identifying the IP address as originating from Israel.

Using an antenna, the suspect allegedly accessed other people’s computers to commit the crimes, the newspaper said, leading police to question a number of innocent suspects before eventually netting him.

His alleged motive remains unknown.

His father has also been arrested, with their next court hearing set for March 30.

- Jewish threats -

The discussion Friday turned to the impact of the arrests, with Trump’s response to anti-Semitism at the forefront.

More than 150 threats have been carried out against Jewish institutions in America since the start of the year. At some locations swastikas were scrawled on walls and cemeteries desecrated.

It is not known what percentage of the threats the teenager is alleged to have been involved with.

Trump received significant criticism from Jewish Americans for his perceived slow response to the uptick.

He even suggested some of the threats might be false to discredit his movement.

He later explicitly condemned anti-Semitic threats.

Trump-supporting far-right websites hailed the arrest in Israel as well as a hoax case in the United States, where the FBI in early March arrested a former journalist suspected of making bomb threats to Jewish community centres and institutions.

He was allegedly cyberstalking an ex-girlfriend, using her name to make the threats.

The Daily Stormer, a prominent anti-Semitic website that had long alleged such threats were a Jewish plot, has claimed vindication.

Alt-right website Breitbart News, formerly run by Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, also saw vindication, but for Trump.

“When the president suggested that some of the anti-Semitic hate crimes could be hoaxes, the (leftwing) Huffington Post claimed he was echoing ‘white nationalists and far-right conspiracy theorists,’” it wrote.

“However, the arrests thus far suggest that most of the threats were indeed hoaxes.”

“The US Jewish leadership owes @POTUS an apology,” Marc Zell, vice-president of Republicans Overseas, tweeted.

US Jewish organisations have tried to downplay the political fallout, saying the arrest did not end legitimate fears.

“No arrests have been made in three cemetery desecrations or a series of other anti-Semitic incidents involving swastika graffiti and hate fliers,” the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement.

But Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations, told The Jerusalem Post the arrest in Israel posed a risk “that people won’t take the ongoing concerns seriously”.

In the Jewish state, newspapers and officials were shocked by the arrest.

“The outcome of this young man?s actions is that the classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theory will be given a tailwind — the Jews portray themselves as victims but are orchestrating the supposed attacks,” an article in Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper said.

A representative of a major global Jewish organisation, who did not want to be named, told AFP that Trump’s false flag claim would gain traction.

“Those sort of statements that everyone thought were totally outlandish at the time now sound somewhat more reasonable.” AFP

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Palestinian Woman Attempts Car-Ramming Terror Attack at Israeli Bus Stop

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A female Palestinian attempted to ram a car into security forces at a tense junction in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday and was shot and wounded, Israel’s military said.

No injuries were reported on the Israeli side following the incident at the Gush Etzion Junction south of Jerusalem. The Palestinian’s condition was not yet clear, nor were details on her identity or age.

A wave of violence that broke out in October 2015 has killed 255 Palestinians, 40 Israelis, two Americans, one Jordanian, an Eritrean and a Sudanese national, according to an AFP count.

Most of the Palestinians who lost their lives were carrying out knife, gun or car-ramming attacks, according to the Israeli authorities.

Others were killed during protests, in clashes or Israeli air raids on Gaza.

Violence has greatly subsided in recent months, despite sporadic attacks. afp

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Israel OKs more settler homes ahead of Trump talks

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Israel approved hundreds of new settler homes in east Jerusalem Sunday, hours before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to speak to US President Donald Trump for the first time since his inauguration.

But a potentially explosive plan to annex a large West Bank Jewish settlement near Jerusalem unilaterally was shelved until after Netanyahu and Trump meet face-to-face.

“This evening there will be a telephone conversation between President Trump and myself,” Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting on Sunday.

“There are many issues between us, including the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the situation in Syria and the Iranian threat.”

The White House confirmed that such a call was scheduled, but did not give further details.

Trump has pledged strong support for Israel and vowed during his campaign to recognise Jerusalem as the country’s capital despite the city’s contested status.

Israeli right-wing politicians have welcomed his election, with hardliners who oppose a Palestinian state hoping it will allow them to move forward with their long-held goal of annexing most of the West Bank.

The United States is Israel’s most important ally, providing it with more than $3 billion per year in defence aid, but former president Barack Obama grew frustrated with Israeli settlement building.

He declined to veto a December 23 UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements. Trump had called for the resolution to be vetoed.

- ‘We can finally build’ -

In an initial move following Trump’s inauguration, Israeli officials on Sunday approved building permits for 566 settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem.

“The rules of the game have changed with Donald Trump’s arrival as president,” Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Meir Turjeman told AFP.

“We no longer have our hands tied as in the time of Barack Obama. Now we can finally build.”

The Palestinian presidency condemned the move, calling it a violation of the UN resolution.

A draft bill to annex the Maale Adumim settlement in the occupied West Bank had been on the agenda for approval by a ministerial committee legislation on Sunday.

Such a move could badly damage prospects for a two-state solution.

But the inner circle of senior ministers known as the security cabinet blocked it for the time being, a member said.

“What was decided was to wait for the meeting which will certainly take place within a few weeks,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israeli public radio.

“Then we shall have another (ministerial) debate on the matter,” he said.

Annexing Maale Adumim unilaterally would set off alarm bells globally, with many warning that it would be another step towards dividing the occupied West Bank between north and south, making a contiguous Palestinian state difficult to achieve.

But for some Israeli ministers who oppose a Palestinian state, that is precisely the point.

“We have to tell the American administration what we want and not wait for orders from the administration,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked told Israel’s army radio.

- ‘Block east Jerusalem’ -

Maale Adumim, in a strategic location east of Jerusalem, has some 37,000 residents.

Some peace proposals have envisioned it becoming part of Israel in land swaps agreed with the Palestinians, but not unilaterally.

It was unclear whether the annexation proposal would apply to another key area called E1, located between the settlement and east Jerusalem.

The Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, while Israel views the entire city as its capital.

Settlements watchdog Ir Amim said “the annexation of Maale Adumim and E1 will block east Jerusalem on its eastern side, swallow up its last development reserves and deepen the detachment from the West Bank.

“Given Maale Adumim’s critical location in the heart of the West Bank, the international community has for years been following with special concern all developments in this area, seen as a touchstone for the viability of a two-state solution.”

Israel occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967, and later annexed east Jerusalem in a move never recognised by the international community.

Settlements in both the West Bank and east Jerusalem are viewed as illegal under international law.

Some 400,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, with another 200,000 in east Jerusalem. In comparison, around 2.9 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. afp

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Arrests after threats over Israeli soldier’s conviction

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Israeli police arrested two people Thursday after death threats emerged online against a judge over the manslaughter conviction of a soldier who shot dead a wounded Palestinian assailant.

Israel’s military has also assigned bodyguards to the three judges who found the 20-year-old French-Israeli soldier guilty on Wednesday, reports said.

Sgt. Elor Azaria was convicted after a trial in a military court that began in May and which deeply divided the country.

It has led to harsh criticism of the verdict by far-right activists, while right-wing politicians — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — have called for the soldier to be pardoned.

Police said they had arrested two people from Jerusalem and the city of Kiryat Gat for incitement to violence online.

According to Israeli news site Ynet, the posts by a 54-year-old man and 22-year-old woman included death threats against the head of the three-judge panel in the case, Colonel Maya Heller.

“Police units are continuing to monitor social media and respond to threats and incitement to violence connected to the Azaria court decision,” a statement said.

Military and justice ministry officials declined to comment on the increased security for Heller as well as the two other judges, Colonel Carmel Wahabi and Lieutenant Colonel Yaron Sitbon.

Military prosecutor Lieutenant Colonel Nadav Weissman was also reportedly given extra protection.

In a sign of the tensions surrounding the case, dozens of protesters scuffled with police Wednesday as they gathered outside Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv, where the verdict was announced.

Military chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot was reportedly targeted with threats, with some supporters of the soldier suggesting he would join Rabin — a reference to the 1995 assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist.

The case burst into public view when a video of the March 24 shooting in Hebron in the occupied West Bank emerged and spread widely online.

The video showed Abdul Fatah al-Sharif, 21, lying on the ground, shot along with another man after stabbing and moderately wounding a soldier minutes earlier, according to the army.

Azaria then shoots him again in the head without any apparent provocation.

Heller spent more than two and a half hours reading out the decision on Wednesday, sharply criticising the arguments of Azaria’s lawyers.

The judges ruled there was no reason for Azaria to open fire since the Palestinian was posing no threat. He faces up to 20 years in prison and will be sentenced at a later date.

A poll by pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom found that around 70 percent of Israelis favour a pardon for Azaria. afp

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Israel revives settlement plans after Trump win

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Jerusalem (AFP) – Israel revived plans on Wednesday to build 500 new homes for Jewish settlers in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, an ominous sign for Palestinians wary of a Donald Trump presidency, an NGO said.

“The political significance of this action is that it is the first plan to be promoted since the US elections,” Betty Herschman from the Ir Amim NGO said.

The plan for 500 housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood in east Jerusalem of around 20,000, had been on hold since 2014, Ir Amim said.

The Jerusalem municipality downplayed the significance of the new housing units, saying the plans were “not new and were approved years ago”.

Nevertheless, the announcement is likely to be interpreted by some as a first step in Israel expanding its settlements in the wake of Trump’s upset election victory.

Israeli right-wingers hailed his triumph as ushering in an administration far less critical of settlement expansion than that of outgoing President Barack Obama’s.

The president-elect’s adviser on Israel, David Friedman, told AFP last month that he does not believe Trump sees Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank as illegal.

One Israeli minister said Trump’s win meant “the era of a Palestinian state is over” while Meir Turjeman, chairman of the Jerusalem municipality planning committee, told public radio earlier in November that it meant suspended permits in east Jerusalem would be given the green light.

He said the municipality intended to authorise thousands of housing units that had been frozen.

- UN envoy warning -

The international community considers all settlements illegal and sees them as one of the largest obstacles to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov told the Security Council on Wednesday that Israel’s latest plan for new settlement homes in east Jerusalem were part of “increasingly worrying” developments and urged Israel to halt the construction.

“The situation on the ground is changing steadily, dangerously, as proponents of Israeli settlement expansion feel emboldened, internal divisions among Palestinians flare up, and the prospect of a future Palestinian state comes under threat like never before,” Mladenov said.

Ahead of the Ramat Shlomo decision France said the planned constructions would be “illegal”.

“The unabated continuation of the settlement policy only serves to increase tensions on the ground and undermines the prospects for achieving a just and lasting peace,” its foreign ministry said Tuesday.

More than 200,000 Israelis now live in east Jerusalem, as part of a wider community of around 600,000 settlers in all the occupied Palestinian territories.

The municipality did not respond Wednesday to the suggestion that the construction plans were related to events in the US.

- Obama’s final days -

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government is considered the most right-wing in Israeli history, has so far been cautious in approving settlements.

While many on the Israeli right are looking forward to Trump’s inauguration in January, they are also wary of what Obama may do in his final days in office.

Obama’s administration has expressed mounting anger over Israeli settlement policy and speculation has grown that he could launch a final initiative before leaving.

The UN Security Council is set to debate proposals for a draft resolution calling for a halt to settlement expansion in the Palestinian territories, with speculation Obama could break with recent US practice and support — or at least not veto — such a resolution before his term expires on January 20.

Netanyahu last month expressed concern over any potential attempt but Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman on Wednesday seemed less concerned.

Asked if he expected any surprises from Obama before his term ends, Lieberman said: “I don’t think so.”

“It is clear we are in a transition period, it is clear today — not only in Israel but in the world — we are waiting for new policies, a new administration.”

Obama has had frosty personal relations with Netanyahu throughout his two-term presidency. afp

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Israel Names First Ambassador to Turkey Since 2010

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Israel nominated a new ambassador to Turkey Tuesday, its first since the two countries normalised ties after the 2010 crisis triggered by Israel’s storming of a Gaza-bound ship.

Eitan Naeh was formally selected by a government committee, said foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.

 He said the timeline for him being confirmed was not yet determined.

Naeh, the current deputy head of mission at the Israeli embassy in London, will become his country’s first ambassador to Turkey since Israeli commandos raided a Gaza-bound ship of activists in 2010.

The raid killed 10 Turks and prompted Ankara to expel the Israeli ambassador.

The two sides finally agreed in June to end the bitter six-year rift after long-running secret talks in third countries with Israel offering $20 million in compensation, an apology over the raid and permission for Turkish aid to reach Gaza.

The normalisation agreement had been urged by the United States, which is keen to see its NATO ally, overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey, resume its previously tight relationship with Israel. afp

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Israel PM warns over Iran influence in Russia meeting

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks on Thursday with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, with the Israeli leader stressing he hoped to limit his arch-foe Iran’s influence in Syria.

The talks came two days after Donald Trump’s election as US president, though the meeting had long been planned.

Israel and Russia have held a series of talks in recent months to coordinate their actions in Syria, where Moscow has been conducting an air campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

Iran is a key ally of Assad as well as Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, also Israel’s enemy.

“We are determined to do two things: first, prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons, and second, to prevent Iran… from establishing itself militarily in Syria, on the ground, in the air or at sea,” Netanyahu said as he met Medvedev.

“We are also determined to prevent it from bringing about the establishment of Shiite militias, which it is organising, and of course, the arming of Hezbollah with dangerous weapons aimed at us.”

Netanyahu called Israel and Russia “partners in the war on radical Islamic terror” and noted that the two countries along with the United States and others “share the goal of eliminating” the Islamic State jihadist group.

Israel opposes Assad but has sought to avoid being dragged into the Syrian war.

It has however carried out strikes there to stop arms deliveries to Hezbollah, which fights alongside Assad’s forces.

Netanyahu admitted publicly for the first time in April that Israel had attacked dozens of convoys in Syria which were transporting weapons to Hezbollah.

Last year, Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to set up a “hotline” to avoid accidental clashes.

Medvedev is to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank city of Jericho on Friday before departing. afp

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