Leaders of traditional Christian churches in Jerusalem issued an unprecedented statement accusing “extremist groups” of attempting to drive the Christian presence from the Holy Land and said they feel betrayed by the Israeli government for failing to protect them.
The statement was met with outrage by Israel’s Foreign Ministry after it had been circulated in the foreign media, but on its surface it was also not outright hostile toward Israel.
In fact, the leaders acknowledged “with gratitude the declared commitment of the Israeli government to uphold a safe and secure home for Christians in the Holy Land and to preserve the Christian community as an integral part of the tapestry of the local community.”
But they also doubled down on the “failure” of the government to prosecute specific individuals or groups that “regularly intimidate local Christians, assault priests and clergy, and desecrate holy sites and church properties.”
It is unclear whether a specific event sparked the church leaders’ statement, which is dated Dec. 13. In the statement, the signatories did not name people or organizations who they accuse of “frequent and sustained attacks by fringe radical groups.” Nor did they mention that Israel closed the borders to foreign tourists and pilgrims right before the Christmas season – which comes at a great cost to the Christian community and the Palestinian tourism industry.
The statement was met with support and shared widely in traditional Christian circles and was even retweeted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
“This is an unprecedented statement from the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem about the future of Christians in the Holy Land,” he wrote. “Please read their heart-cry.”
In an article in the Sunday Times, co-authored with the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem Hosam Naoum, Welby made it clear that the attacks the statement refers to come from Israeli settler communities. The two added that the restrictions Israel places on Palestinians to leave and enter the West Bank have “deepened the isolation of Christian villages” whose residents are unable to travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, for example.
However, Israel defended its record on religious freedoms and its protection of the Christian community. Lior Haiat, spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that “the accusations that appear in the statement by Church leaders are baseless, and distort the reality of the Christian community in Israel.”
“The Christian population in Israel – including in Jerusalem – enjoys full freedom of religion and of worship, is constantly growing, and is part of the unique fabric of Israeli society,” Haiat said. “The statement by Church leaders in Jerusalem is particularly infuriating given their silence on the plight of many Christian communities in the Middle East suffering from discrimination and persecution.”
“Religious leaders have a critical role to play in education for tolerance and coexistence, and Church leaders should be expected to understand their responsibility and the consequences of what they have published, which could lead to violence and bring harm to innocent people,” Haiat’s statement continued.
Israel does issue permits for Christians from both the West Bank and Gaza to leave the territories in order to attend religious services for the holidays.
WHAT IS AT ISSUE?
Without naming names, the statement mentions incidents, dating back to 2012, including “countless incidents of physical and verbal assaults against priests and other clergy, attacks on Christian churches, with holy sites regularly vandalized and desecrated, and ongoing intimidation of local Christians who simply seek to worship freely and go about their daily lives.”
“These tactics are being used by such radical groups in a systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land,” the statement said.
In the Armenian Quarter – where religious Jews pass through on their way to pray at the Western Wall – priests have been spat upon and attacked by religious Jews. It is also true that organizations such as Ateret Cohanim, a far-right Jewish group, intentionally seeks to buy property from the church for its own purposes. And Lehava – a far-right and Jewish supremacist organization – has been responsible for attacks on religious sites and disrupting, even rioting, at Christian and Messianic Jewish events.
Another ongoing threat is the expanding presence of the Turkish government in East Jerusalem which has been buying land and exerting a charitable influence among the Arab population. While this is a more general threat against Israel, Turkey is a Muslim nation and is apparently purchasing or funding the purchase of Christian properties, according to people familiar with what is happening in the Old City.
This trend is a source of great angst for local Christians when their own leaders sell church land. This happened several years ago when the Greek Patriarch allegedly sold vast amounts of property at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City to an unnamed buyer and more recently when the Armenian patriarchate sold a large swath of undeveloped land in the Old City to both the Jerusalem Municipality and an Australian hotel developer.
CHRISTIANS IN THE HOLY LAND
While Israel does promote freedom of worship, it is worth a deeper look at the plight of Christians here, especially during Christmas season.
Christians exist as a minority suspended between Israel’s Jewish majority and Palestinian Muslims both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. Christians are often marginalized and feel persecution both ethnically and religiously.
“Our presence is precarious and our future is at risk,” Father Francesco Patton wrote in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph.
The Catholic Church’s Custos of the Holy Land and guardian of the Christian holy places in the Holy Land, Patton wrote that the Christian population has decreased from 20% at its height to less than 2% now.
He issued an appeal to the world for support “so that we can continue to preserve the rich diversity of this Holy Land.”
A majority of indigenous Christians are of Arab descent and thus, relate culturally more as Palestinians rather than as Israelis. But for the most part, in many areas of Israel, Christians, Muslims and Jews live harmoniously in an attempt to rise above the underlying ethnic tensions. Arabs hold top jobs as lawyers, doctors, journalist and even Knesset members in mainstream Israeli society.
Jerusalem is, as always, another story. Differences are more pronounced and divisions between religion and race are readily apparent in neighborhoods, especially the Old City.
The traditional Catholic and Orthodox churches have been long established across the Holy Land and serve as guardians of Christian holy sites, as well as of the Christian presence, providing them with a sense of community and meeting material needs such as housing, education and charity where needed.
Church leaders requested “urgent dialogue” with authorities in “Israel, Palestine and Jordan” and also the creation of a “special Christian cultural and heritage zone to safeguard the integrity of the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem.”
Traditional Christian churches in the Jewish state are often overlooked – or even dismissed – but a Christian presence has existed uninterrupted in this land since the days of Jesus. The Old City of Jerusalem – where many of these Christians live – was taken over by Israel from Jordan after the Six-Day War in 1967.
Christians – both traditional and Evangelical – continue to contribute to the Israeli economy, making up the largest bulk of tourists that visit the Holy Land, as noted in the statement.
Read the statement in full.