US congresspeople call on Blinken to protect Jerusalem's Christians

A bipartisan group sent a letter to Blinken expressing "deep concern."

 Holy Fire ceremony 2022 (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
Holy Fire ceremony 2022
(photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)

A bipartisan group of congresspeople sent a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday expressing “deep concern” about an alleged rise in extremist attacks against Jerusalem’s Christian community.

The letter, led by Joaquin Castro (TX-20) and Gus Bilirakis (FL-12), was co-signed by representatives James P. McGovern (MA-02), Anna G. Eshoo (CA-18), French Hill (AR-02), Andy Harris (MD-01), Nicole Malliotakis (NY-11) and Jackie Speier (CA-14). It was copied to Rashad Hussain, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.

It called on Blinken to work with his Israeli counterparts to ensure that Jerusalem continues to be a safe place for Christians, Jews and Muslims to live and worship freely. 

“In recent months, the leaders of Christian churches in Jerusalem, including the Greek Orthodox Church, Catholic Church and others have spoken publicly about the mounting challenges faced by Christian communities in Jerusalem,” a release by Castro’s office said. “While the Israeli government has committed to protecting the rights of all religious minorities in Jerusalem, the actions of radical groups are threatening the safety and long-term viability of Christian worship and presence in the city.”

The letter comes in follow up to a statement released by the Patriarchs and heads of local churches of Jerusalem in December 2021 accusing “radical groups” of systematically attempting to “drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem” and after recent frustration by Jerusalem’s Christian community that attendance at this year’s Holy Fire and Easter celebrations had to be limited for safety reasons.

“We write today as a bipartisan group of members of Congress deeply concerned by the rise in attacks against the Christian community in Jerusalem,” the congresspeople wrote.

Read the full letter.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, leads a procession during Orthodox Palm Sunday, marking the start of Holy Week that ends on Easter Sunday in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City April 17, 2022. (Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, leads a procession during Orthodox Palm Sunday, marking the start of Holy Week that ends on Easter Sunday in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City April 17, 2022. (Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

They cited several incidents of violence, including an Israeli man who attempted to set fire to the Church of All Nations in December 2020 and four acts of vandalism against the Monastery of the Romanian Church in Jerusalem in 2021. 

They also highlighted that “members of a radical group broke into Christian properties around the Jaffa Gate entrance to the ancient Christian Quarter of Jerusalem.”

“Despite general protections afforded to minority religious communities by the Israeli government, the actions of radical groups pose a grave threat to the long-term viability of the Christian presence in Jerusalem,” they wrote. “These incidents underscore the need to further work with the Israeli government to uphold its stated commitment to religious freedom. We understand that a senior delegation of church leaders from Jerusalem will soon come to Washington, D.C., and we encourage you to meet with them while they are in our capital in a show of solidarity with Christian minorities in the region and to strengthen friendships with the American people.”

Last week, in a detailed opinion piece written by Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum and published by the Telegraph, she countered many of the claims made by the church leaders, including that reports of regular and increasing desecration and vandalism of Christian holy sites in the city are not corroborated by the city or the Israel Police.

A longer version of the same column that she shared with The Jerusalem Post.

“If there was truly a trend of rising violence against Christians, wouldn’t we expect such incidents to be reported to local law enforcement before being aired to the foreign press?” she asked. “The City of Jerusalem and its Police Authorities are completely engaged in protecting the Christian population, and any reported acts of intolerance are acted upon quickly and decisively.”

Finally, the congresspeople claimed that there is a decline in Christian presence in Jerusalem, which could harm the work being done by the Churches in support of medical, educational and humanitarian needs of the country’s disadvantaged and harm Christian tourism to Israel - an $3 billion a year infusion of funds into the Israeli economy. 

According to data reported by the Israel Democracy Institute and cited by Hassan-Nahoum, the Christian population in Israel has grown by 1.5% in the last year and 84% of Christians are satisfied with their lives in this country.

“We ask the State Department to work with the Israeli government to uphold its stated commitment to the freedom of religion and worship for all religions and to hold accountable the radical groups who are engaging in sustained attacks against Christian clergy and destruction of church properties,” the congresspeople concluded. “We ask you to work closely with counterparts in the Israeli government to ensure Jerusalem is a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims can worship freely, without fear of attack.”