Church leaders in Jerusalem have accused Israel of bias against Christians and apathy about attacks on Christian holy places and clergy. The statement by the patriarchs and heads of churches in the city of Jerusalem warned of the “current threat to the Christian presence in the Holy Land.” It also denounced extremist groups that seize property in the Christian Quarter “with the aim of curbing the Christian presence.”
The statement issued last week said that since 2012 there have been “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.”
Although the statement acknowledges “with gratitude the declared commitment of the Israeli government to uphold a safe and secure home for Christians in the Holy Land,” it noted that this was not translated into action on the ground. “It is, therefore, a matter of grave concern when this national commitment is betrayed by the failure of local politicians, officials and law enforcement agencies to curb the activities of radical groups who regularly intimidate local Christians, assault priests and clergy, and desecrate Holy Sites and churches’ properties,” the statement said.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry denied the existence of religious bias against Christians.
“These unfounded allegations of discriminatory conduct are outrageous, false and dangerous,” the ministry said in a statement, adding: “We expect religious leaders to not engage in and promote the baseless discourse of hatred and incitement that only serve to add fuel to the fire of antisemitism and can lead to violence and cause harm to innocent people.”
The recent ban on entry of foreigners to Israel due to the spread of the new COVID-19 variant made an exemption for “Jewish tourism,” including Birthright groups, but not for Christian groups looking to visit for Christmas, the Times of Israel reported.
The Foreign Ministry denied the accusation saying that “the exemptions were being granted without any connection to religion.”
Head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, Archbishop Atallah Hanna, told The Media Line that Palestinian Christians and especially Jerusalemites feel that they are targeted and “this goes to both Christian and Muslim sites as well as Palestinian Christians and Muslims,” he said.
Atallah said that Christian clergy are attacked sometimes verbally or are spit upon, and at other times the attacks are physical. This is evident in Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter where Jewish radicals often attack and spit at Christian clergy. “All these actions have caused a reduction of Christian presence but those of us staying in the city are steadfast and our roots are deep in the city,” he said.
Yusef Daher, coordinator of the World Council of Churches office in Jerusalem, told The Media Line that Israeli actions at the Old City’s Jaffa Gate and New Gate are extremely worrisome. “They are applying the formula of divide and rule by separating the shopkeepers from the public in an attempt to force Christian Palestinians of the Old City to leave while they are careful not to allow such commercialization and chaos in the Jewish Quarter,” he explained.
Hatem Abdel Qader, the head of the Christian-Muslim Coalition in Jerusalem, told The Media Line that the statement of the patriarchs reflects the Israeli occupier’s racist attitude toward the Christian presence in Jerusalem and is meant to weaken the Christian Palestinian community, which is an integral part of the Arab identity of Jerusalem. “A perfect example of this is the fact that Israel has given a waiver to Jewish tourists to enter the country despite the pandemic while banning the entry of Christian pilgrims and tourists,” he said. Abdel Qader says that the attempts to weaken the Palestinian Muslim community are now being practiced “against our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters.”
Expressing solidarity with the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem, the World Council of Churches’ (WCC) acting general secretary, the Rev. Dr. Ioan Sauca, in a statement offered his organization’s support for the churches and Christian communities of the Holy Land “in their unbroken continuing ministry and witness in the land of Christ’s birth.”
“The WCC strongly supports the church leaders’ call for an urgent dialogue with the political authorities of Israel, Palestine and Jordan with a view to addressing the challenges posed by radical groups and to protecting and supporting the Christian community,” the statement said.
Dimitri Diliani, president of the National Christian Coalition in Jerusalem, told The Media Line that the recent statement issued by patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem sounded “a loud and unprecedented alarm” to bring the attention of Christians around the world to the “hate crimes” against Palestinian Christians committed by the Jewish radicals. “The Israeli governments’ denial of hate crimes committed by its citizens against Palestinian Christians is a dangerous indication that the government will continue to protect and support Israeli racist criminals,” he said.
Diliani said that now is time for the world “to act swiftly to protect Christians, clergy, churches and the Christian heritage in Jerusalem.”
The Old City of Jerusalem was declared by UNESCO to be a world heritage site and is protected by international resolutions.