Britain’s future king faces up to Jerusalem’s religious politics

THE tortured relationships between two royal families, Jerusalem, Israel and the Jews came to a head this week as Britain’s future king (and unless something changes, the future head of the Church of England) toured the city, which is held dear by three monotheistic religions.

His itinerary included the Western Wall, where he stood in prayerful silence, wearing a Jewish head-covering, and the peak known as both the Temple Mount and Haram al-Sharif, which is revered by Jews and Muslims. He also visited the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb of Jesus Christ where six Christian confessions exercise joint stewardship, but a Muslim dynasty holds the keys.

For Prince William, the emotional high point may have been a visit to the tomb of his great-grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece, in an awesomely beautiful Russian Orthodox convent on the Mount of Olives. The princess, who became a Greek Orthodox nun and battled with mental-health problems, is honoured in Israel as a “righteous Gentile” because of the help she gave a Jewish family in Greece during the second world war.

The convent has another, even more powerful, connection to British and Russian royalty. It was founded by the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, a German-born princess (and grand-daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria) who like her sister Empress Alexandra married into Russia’s ruling dynasty and suffered the same fate—in other words, murder by the Bolsheviks. The Grand Duchess has been canonised as “Saint Elizabeth the New Martyr” in recognition not only of her horrible death (she was thrown down a mineshaft) but of the charitable order, honouring the New Testament figures of Mary and Martha, which she founded after her husband, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, was killed by terrorists.

Prince Alice may have been a friend of the Jews, but Grand Duke Sergei certainly wasn’t. As governor of Moscow, he oversaw the expulsion of tens of thousands of Jewish people from the city. But that horrible episode has been downplayed recently in the interests of Russian-Israeli cultural amity. A prestigious building in old Jerusalem which bears the name of the Grand Duke has recently been transferred from Israeli administration to that of the Russian Orthodox church, in order to resume its old function as a way-station for pilgrims. This was considered a significant moment in relations between Russia and Israel.

In any case, the grand duke’s saintly widow bears no responsibility for her husband’s harsh actions. Unlike Tsar Nicholas, his wife and his children (whom the church credits with enduring pain with fortitude), Grand Duchess Elizabeth is honoured for something more positive, the work she did to relieve the poor and infirm of her adopted country.

Doubtless some of this was explained to Prince William. The Russian priest who acted as his escort said afterwards he had teased the prince by reminding him of an incident involving his grandfather, Prince Philip. Asked whether he planned to visit Russia, Prince Philip apparently said, “They murdered half my bloody family, so maybe I will go, maybe not.” This week’s royal visitor thought that was typical of his notoriously sharp-tongued grandfather: “He would say that.”

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