A day after it was discovered on the exterior walls of a Jerusalem Baptist church this week, graffiti declaring “Death to Christianity” had been cleaned up and a host of officials from the Israeli government had visited with apologies and expressions of concern.
But for the Christian community in Israel, the environment remains inhospitable.
A small but eclectic population of indigenous Palestinians, foreign clergy, messianic Jews, Russian immigrants and expatriates, Christians are free to practice their faith and only very rarely are victims of actual violence. But centuries of anti-Semitism have left many Israelis with a poor view of Christianity and that occasionally bubbles over into attacks on people and property, say Christian clergy and Israelis who work on interfaith ties.
“I don’t think a majority would engage in such a vandalistic act, but it is a manifestation of anti-Christian feeling in Israeli society,” Hana Bendcowsky, program director for the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (JCJCR), told The Media Line. “The main problem is ignorance, a lot of stereotypes and the history of Jewish-Christian relationships in Europe that influence the attitude of Israelis toward local Christians.”
With its array of Christian institutions and holy sites, Jerusalem puts the two faiths into very close proximity, but rarely do Jews and Christians have much personal contact. In a city of 770,000 people, only 14,500 are Christians, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. That leaves the task of influencing the attitudes of the Jewish majority to the schools and groups like the JCJCR.
The vandalism of the church building, in the city’s Rehavia neighborhood close to the center of town, included attacks on vehicles nearby that were scrawled with the words “Jesus, son of a whore” and other graffiti with the words “price tag,” a phrase used by extremist Jews suspected in attacks on mosques and Palestinians.
Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israeli Police, said investigators are not sure who was behind the vandalism. They are probing possible links with a case of graffiti declaring “Death to Christians” and “price tag” that were scrawled three weeks ago on a Greek Orthodox monastery in the Valley of the Cross, not more than a 15 minute walk from the Baptist church, he said.
“We’re looking in two different directions about who is behind this event as well as the possibility there is connection with a previous incident,” Rosenfeld told The Media Line, saying the perpetrators could be either people with nationalistic motives or just plain vandals with no ideology.
Clergy are often targeted for spitting attacks by ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem’s Old City. Two years ago signs on Mt. Zion guiding pilgrims to the Cenacle, where tradition says The Last Supper took place, were defaced by anonymous vandals.
“They seem to come in waves. One provokes another. Crazy people get into their heads that this is the ting to do,” David Neuhaus, a vicar of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, told The Media Line.
The Baptist church itself was burned to the ground in 1982 and subject to a second, smaller arson attack in 2007. “Over the years we’ve had other incidents of graffiti and tar being smeared on the wall, broken windows. Before that we had a nail bomb,” said Chuck Kopp, pastor of the Narkis Street Congregation, one of three Baptist groups that meet in the church whose congregation is at about 300 members.
Kopp, who has lived in Israel since 1966, said that as far as he knows no one has been convicted for any of the crimes. While he expressed disappointment that higher officials in Israel’s government or in Jerusalem didn’t make any public statements condemning the vandalism, he acknowledged that most Israelis do not approve of the harassment.
“While the majority wouldn’t stand for extremist actions, there are segments that are substantial that tip the scales in the favor of extremists. They aid and abet, give psychological comfort,” Kopp said.
Ironically, Baptists and many other Protestant groups have been emerged as big supporters of Israel in recent decades in contrast to other denominations that are perceived as pro-Palestinian. But Bendcowsky said most Israelis do not relate to that in forming their attitudes toward Christians.
By the same token, Neuhaus discounted the role of the church’s historical anti-Semitism, pointing out that anti-Christian attitudes are more prevalent among the more religious and the less educated, who tend to be less tolerant in general, not just of Christians. A 2009 poll of Jewish Israelis by the JCJCR and the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies bears that out.
Among secular Jewish Israelis, 85% agreed with the assertion that the State of Israel is obliged to guarantee freedom of religion and conscience for its Christian citizens. Nearly half described the relationship of the Catholic Church to Judaism and Jews as positive.
Among religiously observant Jewish Israelis, however, the survey found that 78% agreed with the claim that “Christianity is an idolatrous religion,” 65% maintained that the attitude of the Catholic Church to Judaism and Jews is negative and 48% agreed that the activities of Christian churches in Israel should be restricted.
Residents of the Jerusalem area were shown to be less tolerant as were younger people versus older; and less educated versus better education, according to the poll.
“It’s connected with what children are learning in schools,” suggested Neuhaus. “Secular schools have textbooks that are very different from religious schools when it come to the teaching of Christianity. They tend to be more tolerant and open towards minorities.”