Churches, shrines, and monasteries in the Middle East are not only pilgrimage destinations, but also places of sanctuary, identity, and hope for local Christians who are suffering existential threats, local religious leaders said.

"Christ dwelt among us in Bethlehem, in Egypt, in Galilee, and, of course, in Jerusalem. And by His Holy Spirit, he has continued to be present down the ages in Jerusalem, the Middle East, and to the very ends of the earth," Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem said. "Our holy sites tell the stories of God's history with us."

"Few can deny that this region, the place of divine-human encounter in sacred history, is in fact the center of the earth," the patriarch stated of the Holy Land at a side event of a global religious freedom gathering in Washington, D.C. last week.

Patriarch Theophilus III addressed an audience of priests and civic and religious leaders at an event on "Christian Holy Sites and Holy Places in the Middle East" on the side of the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, hosted by the U.S. State Department from July 15-19 in Washington, D.C.

The Ministerial was attended by religious and civic leaders from around the world, including delegations from 106 countries, meeting to discuss religious persecution and strategies to advance religious freedom.

Thursday's event on the "Holy Sites" was sponsored by the International Community of the Holy Sepulchre and the Hudson Institute's Working Group on Christians and Religious Pluralism in the Middle East.

Speakers focused not only on the spiritual significance of pilgrimage sites throughout the Middle East, but on their central importance to the Christians who live there.

Patriarch Theophilus is the 141st patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, the most senior Christian leader in the Holy Land. At last week's event, he warned that "attacks from radicals on Church properties in Jerusalem continue," and that the groups "know only too well that every attack against a holy site poses another threat to our Christian identity."

The holy sites are threatened on multiple fronts, he said, including vandalism, "intimidation from radical settlers," and hostile policies in Israel's Knesset legislature.

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These policies would allow the municipal taxation of church-owned property in Jerusalem like hospitals and schools, which could "bankrupt" the churches, the patriarch said; another bill would have allowed the state to confiscate land sold by churches to private groups supposedly for the defense of the tenants.

These policies were at the heart of the decision by Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian leaders to temporarily close the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in February of 2018.

"Enough was enough, and it was time to draw the line," the Patriarch said of the closure. "Forces beyond our control threatened the sanctity and integrity of our holy sites."

"To keep just one pilgrim" out of the church "is a tragedy," he said, but he added that the solidarity of millions around the world with the churches was heartening.

The church was reopened after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened in the efforts to impose the tax policy, and the city backed off on the proposals. When the "solution was found," the patriarch said, "the light of the Resurrection shone bright."

The Patriarch stated his gratitude to Netanyahu and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for their efforts to protect the Holy Sites, as well as "the continued and faithful custodianship over the holy sites" of King Abdullah II of Jordan, and legislators in the U.S. and the UK for their support.

He drew attention to the July 11 prayer vigil attended by other patriarchs and heads of churches at Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate, in the wake of the Israeli supreme court ruling against the Greek Orthodox Church in a controversial land deal that dates back to 2005.

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The deal involved the sale by the Church, later disputed, of hotels just inside the Christian Quarter of the city to Israeli settlers, a transfer of property that the patriarch said could affect the "integrity" of the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem, and possibly impede access of pilgrims to the holy sites.

A joint statement of the patriarchs and heads of local churches in Jerusalem called the deal "underhanded" and said it threatened the Status Quo agreement of the city.

Patriarch Theophilos said he has asked local officials to join in support of Netanyahu and his work "to keep the pilgrim route open to all, and to maintain the historic, multiethnic, multicultural and mutireligious fabric of our great city Jerusalem."

Preservation of holy sites in the Holy Land as well as Syria, Iraq and Egypt was discussed at last week's event.

Fr. Alexi Chehadeh of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, told of how holy sites "all over Syria" have been destroyed during the country's ongoing civil war. Hundreds of churches and monasteries have been fully or partially destroyed, with billions of dollars needed to rehabilitate or reconstruct them.

The symbolic importance of the reconstruction of holy sites cannot be ignored, he and other Christian leaders insisted.

Many holy sites of the Patriarchate are churches dating back to the second or third century, he said. To rebuild them is "caring for the roots of Christianity," Fr. Chehadeh said, but it would also be "a sign of a peaceful environment" for Christians to return to Syria. Around half of Syria's Christian communities left Syria during the civil war.

Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, gave orders to start the rebuilding process in Iraq's Nineveh region by focusing on the homes of the Christian genocide survivors, Fr. Salar Kajo, a priest in Teleskov, Iraq, said.

Yet "the people insisted to start with the holy places, the churches and the monasteries," Fr. Salar said. "This is the only sign of hope that we have, and we will return because of these places."

In Egypt, after the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood: "came after the churches," Nermien Riad, founder of the group Coptic Orphans, said.

Why did they target the churches? "We recognize that there's a gradual shrinking of public space for Christians in Egypt," Riad said, as extremists want to remove public icons and statues; the exclusion of Christians from public spaces has reportedly even reached sports, as Christians have reported discrimination in joining soccer clubs and in making the national soccer team.

Thus, "churches have become the nucleus of the Christian community," she said, and "serve as a vital support center" for Christians and a "place of refuge" for them "from the insidious messaging" of them as "second-class citizens."

"Most importantly," she said, "it is the last remaining vestige that we exist."