Press Release High Court hearing the religious status of the Western Wall tunnels
On Wednesday, March 22, the High Court of Justice will hear Emek Shaveh’s petition against the Minister of Religious Services concerning the sanctity of the Western Wall tunnels running underneath the Muslim Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. The petition follows a written confirmation from the minister’s office stating that the Western Wall tunnels are a sacred site exclusively for the Jewish people, despite the fact that the exit to the tunnel is located on the Via Dolorosa, sacred to Christians, that the tunnels were excavated beneath Islamic, Christian and Jewish religious structures and that over the last decade, the Israel Antiquities Authority has been excavating hundreds of square meters underground, thereby endlessly expanding the area defined as the Western Wall. According to the antiquities law, in order to excavate a sacred site it is necessary to assemble a ministerial committee and receive its approval. However, this procedure was never undertaken with respect to the Western Wall Tunnels. Recognizing these underground spaces as sacred only to the Jewish people has consequences for the archaeology of the area and carries political implications.
In the petition, we demand a limitation of the area declared as sacred to the Jewish people and a clear delineation of its boundaries. In today’s reality, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has control over Jerusalem’s ancient sites, while archaeology is used as a tool for adding and expanding sites sacred to Jews.
Hundreds of meters have been excavated over the last decade as part of the Western Wall tunnel project, with the main archaeological excavation activity taking place in the Old City. The decision to sanctify the underground city for the Jewish religion only, means sanctifying structures from different periods for Jews, from the Second Temple period, through Roman pagan structures, Byzantine and Crusader, Mamluk and Ottoman. — all this beneath the homes of residents of the Muslim Quarter.
The antiquities law (section 29c) does not allow archaeological excavations in a sacred site without approval from a ministerial committee. By law, the committee must include the Minister of Culture, in charge of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Minister of Religious Services and the Minister of Justice. The Israel Antiquities Authority is the main (if not the only) entity excavating the underground Western Wall tunnels. Based on a response by the Ministry of Religious Services from November 6, the tunnels are recognized as a sacred site, even though a ministerial committee was never assembled to approve these archaeological excavations.
As we see it, these excavations are being used as a tool for the development of an underground quarter beneath the Old City, which the state seeks to sanctify for Jews, but is not willing to do so legally and responsibly – through a ministerial committee. In Israel today,, archaeological excavations have a lot more to do with politics than with science.
Click here for more information on the Old City tunnels project.