World News

Palestinians criticize Orthodox Church over road

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - The Greek Orthodox church is facing Palestinian criticism over its participation in the inauguration of an Israeli-built road that has eased access to an ancient monastery in the occupied West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority said it was “surprised” by the church’s decision to attend the opening of the road built by Israel to ease access to St. George’s Monastery near Jericho.

The 5th century monastery is in a part of the West Bank that falls under the full civil and security control of Israel, which has occupied the territory since the 1967 Middle East war.

The Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule over about 40 percent of the territory, had asked Israel for a permit to build the access road, but it was not granted, spokesman Ghassan Khatib said.

The road was opened on Tuesday in the presence of the director-general of Israel’s Tourism Ministry and Archbishop Aristarchos of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

The work cost 2 million shekels, or just over $500,000, according to a statement from the Tourism Ministry.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, in a statement, “expressed surprise at the participation of a representative of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.”

Khatib said: “We believe that third parties like the Greek Orthodox Church should not take part in such activities because this will give a deceiving impression about the situation.

“Israel is generally preventing us from constructing and building, or destroying what we build.”

One such case was the destruction of a Palestinian-built road in the West Bank last week, he said. It had been built without Israel’s permission on land that falls under its full control according to interim peace agreements.

Speaking at the opening, Archbishop Aristarchos told Reuters the road to St. George’s Monastery was of benefit to both pilgrims and the Holy Land. He declined to comment on the PA criticism on Wednesday.

The Israeli Tourism Ministry statement said that “for the last three years, access was extremely difficult due to water erosion from flash floods and damage caused by a small earthquake.”

The work was “in answer to requests by Christian communities around the world to improve pilgrim and tourist access to the site,” it added.

Israel calls the West Bank by the Biblical names “Judea and Samaria.” The Palestinians want the territory to become part of the independent state they aim to found alongside Israel.

Reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Jon Hemming