Church of Holy Sepulchre disavows keymaster’s Pence ‘boycott’

After Muslim man holding key to Old City holy site writes letter of protest, Pence spokesperson and church say no visit even planned at this stage

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Christian Orthodox priests look through a hole in the main door of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, before the Holy Fire ceremony around Jesus's tomb, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on April 11, 2015. (AFP/Thomas Coex)
Christian Orthodox priests look through a hole in the main door of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, before the Holy Fire ceremony around Jesus's tomb, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on April 11, 2015. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

Officials at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Wednesday dismissed the significance of a letter written by the site’s Muslim keyholder in which he vowed not to receive US Vice President Mike Pence as irrelevant, since the man is not an official of the church and does not represent it.

A spokeswoman for Pence, who is due next week, said the vice president has not reached out to plan a visit to the church at this stage, and a church official said no visit had yet been planned.

Adeeb Jowdeh al-Husseini, the Custodian of the Keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, wrote in an Arabic statement this week that he “refuses completely to receive United States Vice President Pence in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”

Stressing his opposition to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Husseini further said he would not be present when the US vice president visits the church, and called on church leaders of the different denominations not to receive Pence.

However, no church visit is planned and Husseini does not represent the church, officials said.

Pence’s press secretary Alyssa Farah wrote on Twitter that Pence, who often plays up the role of Christianity in his public life, had never reached out regarding a visit to the holy site. “This report is false,” she wrote.

A senior church official also said no visit had been planned.

“We didn’t receive any formal or informal request and if there is a request, there is a status quo procedure to respect involving the three communities. Anyway it is not up to one of the key keepers to decide anything about this kind of issue,” the official said.

US President Donald Trump (C) and First Lady Melania Trump visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)

Two other church officials said Husseini is not a church official and does not represent any of the of Christian denominations who have a stake in the church where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was buried.

“He is not an official and represents himself,” said one of them, Ibrahim Shomali, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.


Husseini is part of a long tradition of Muslim men who inherit the responsibility of opening and closing the Christian holy site in order to keep the status quo between all the different parties at this sensitive sacred spot.

“We will say to Mr. Trump, it’s not reasonable that one can give something away that doesn’t belong to him to someone that doesn’t deserve it,” wrote Jowdeh al-Husseini in his statement.

US President Donald Trump holds up a signed memorandum recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as US Vice President looks on, at the White House, on December 6, 2017. (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)

In an address last Wednesday from the White House, Trump defied worldwide warnings and insisted that after repeated failures to achieve peace, a new approach was long overdue, describing his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the seat of Israel’s government as merely based on reality.

The move was hailed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by leaders across much of the Israeli political spectrum. Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites.

Last week, the senior Egyptian cleric Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb  cancelled a scheduled meeting with Pence.

“Al-Azhar cannot sit with those who falsify history and steal the rights of people,” a statement said. “How can I sit with those who gave what they do not own to those who are undeserving?”

On Wednesday, the head of the Joint List of Arab parties in the Knesset said his faction would boycott Pence’s speech to the parliament.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul on December 13, 2017. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also cancelled a planned meeting with Pence.

On Saturday Abbas’s diplomatic adviser, Majdi Khaldi, said that a meeting planned between the PA president and Pence was canceled “because the US has crossed red lines” on Jerusalem.

Abbas had viewed close ties with Washington as strategically important because of the US role as Mideast broker. The snub of Pence signaled a sharp deterioration in relations.

The White House warned on Thursday that canceling the meeting planned for the West Bank would be “counterproductive.”

Jibril Rajoub, a senior member of Abbas’s Fatah party, had said Friday that Pence was “not welcome in Palestine.”

Agencies and Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.

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