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Disputes start small in Holy City

It started simply enough: When the Coptic Church laid claim to the cellar beneath a leather factory in the Old City, the Muslim owner objected.

It didn't stay simple. Abdel Salam Herbawi's refusal led to his kidnapping by Palestinian agents, Israel's two-day siege of the West Bank town of Ramallah to press for his freedom, and a brawl between Muslims and Christians. The Copts, a branch of Christianity with roots in Egypt, asked the Egyptian government to step in.

Herbawi's story illustrates how disputes in Jerusalem can spin out of control when its competing religious and political interests are involved.

Jerusalem is a city claimed as a capital by Israel and the Palestinians and revered by three major religions. It is a place where each player anxiously defends his claims _ no matter how small they appear.

Even if political differences are settled, the religious disputes likely will remain. None of the powers that have ruled the city _ Turkey, Britain, Jordan or Israel _ have been able to settle them or persuade the rivals to agree.

Exhausted after hours of interrogation by both Israel and the Palestinians, 50-year-old Herbawi appeared confused this week.

"I don't know what to do. I don't know what to say," Herbawi told reporters at his villa on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

At the center of the dispute is Herbawi's factory, in the Old City, where 150 men sitting behind rows of sewing machines make leather jackets. The factory is part of a maze of buildings surrounding the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a basilica built over the site where tradition says Jesus was crucified and buried.

The property quarrel began when the Coptic Church next door to Herbawi laid claim to the factory's 150-square-yard basement, saying it was a 4th century church known as St. Jacob that was seized illegally when the Muslim warrior Saladin conquered Jerusalem in the 12th century. The Copts pointed to the cellar's cross-shaped dome and pillars as proof.

But Herbawi refused to part with it, saying he had leased the whole complex from the Islamic Trust, which administers properties in the Old City.

Earlier this month, Herbawi learned that the Copts had begun renovating the cellar without his knowledge after secretly opening a passage from their church to the dark vault.

Incensed by what they claimed were Christian attempts to take over Muslim property, some 50 Muslim youths armed with sticks and knives attacked a Coptic monk and two workers in the cellar July 13, slightly injuring them.

Herbawi's family said he had nothing to do with the attack.

He has, however, sued the Coptic Church, and an Israeli court ordered a temporary halt to the renovations.

Alarmed, the church appealed to its patron, the Egyptian government, for help. Egyptian officials turned to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who promised to solve the problem.

Arafat's help came in the form of six Palestinian undercover agents who burst into Herbawi's villa last Friday, seized him at gunpoint and took him to the West Bank town of Ramallah.

At this stage, Israel felt the affair was undermining its claims to sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, including the eastern sector it captured from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war.

Israel argued that Herbawi carried an Israeli identity card and that Palestinian security agents had no right to seize him. So Israeli troops laid siege to Ramallah last Saturday, barring everyone from leaving or entering until Herbawi was released.

Arafat relented and released Herbawi on Sunday. But Herbawi's troubles were not over.

Israel insisted the property dispute be resolved in Israeli courts, which would be tantamount to a formal Palestinian recognition of Israeli sovereignty.

Israel's Religious Affairs Ministry said the disputed basement is part of the sprawling Church of the Holy Sepulcher complex.

"This means that it is a holy place, subject to the status quo, and it is the government which must decide, no other body," said Uri Mor, head of the Christian Communities Division.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, pressured Herbawi to drop his lawsuit. Egypt's ambassador to Israel, Mohammed Bassiouny, met with Herbawi on Wednesday and also suggested it was better to solve the problem amicably.

In the end, Herbawi dropped the lawsuit.