Concerns grow over rising attacks against Christian sites in Israel

Dozens of incidents, ranging from spitting to vandalism to assault, have been committed by extremist Jews against Christians and their sites this year.

 Are Christians in Jerusalem living under acts of violence and vandalism? (Illustrative) (photo credit: I. H. Mintz)
Are Christians in Jerusalem living under acts of violence and vandalism? (Illustrative)
(photo credit: I. H. Mintz)

The title of a conference that took place in Jerusalem in June—“Why Do (Some) Jews Spit at Gentiles?”—rankled with many Israelis.

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But for the small Christian minority living in Israel, spitting may be the least of their concerns. So far in 2023, there have been dozens of attacks by extremist Jews on Christians or Christian sites, ranging from the merely unpleasant to vandalism and assault.

“Definitely there has been an increase—in the last year, a very high increase—in all types of violence, spitting, attacks on sites, provocations,” Farid Jubran, general counsel of the Catholic Church's Custody of the Holy Land, told The Media Line.

Jubran said the recently created Religious Freedom Data Center lists 20 incidents in July alone, and that he knew of incidents that were not reported, either because the victims were unaware of the center's hotline or because they had grown accustomed to such incidents and did not bother reporting them.

In January this year, almost 30 graves at a Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem were vandalized. Two Orthodox Jewish teenagers, one aged 18 and the other 14, were arrested based on surveillance camera footage.

 Worshippers hold candles as they take part in the Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City April 15, 2017 (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
Worshippers hold candles as they take part in the Christian Orthodox Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City April 15, 2017 (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)

Since then, in Jerusalem alone, further incidents have included: A mob of at least a dozen Orthodox Jews overturning tables and throwing chairs at the Taboon Armenian restaurant; a Jewish American tourist toppling a statue of Jesus at the Church of the Flagellation; two Jewish men attacking a bishop and two priests during Mass at the Church of Gethsemane; two Jewish passersby pepper-spraying a young man outside the Armenian convent; and a window in the Cenacle or Upper Room on Mount Zion, where Jesus and the apostles are believed to have held the Last Supper, being smashed by a Jewish man.

In May, a new flashpoint opened when ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews began praying outside the Stella Maris Carmelite monastery in Haifa, claiming it had been built on the tomb of the prophet Elisha.

A spokesman for the Israel Police told The Media Line that the police take religious violence seriously, especially in the volatile Old City of Jerusalem, and act on any incident reported.

In a meeting in July with Vatican Foreign Minister Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen condemned violence against Christians.

“We are committed to maintaining the safety and dignity of Christians in Israel. We will show zero tolerance towards cases of violence based on hate,” he said.

Wadie Abunassar, coordinator of the Holy Land Christian Forum, said that “nice words” from the state were not enough.

“We are concerned not only about the incidents but about a lack of sufficient action from the state authority,” Abunassar told The Media Line. “Our main problem is not with the hooligans or criminals,” but with how the governing authorities respond, he said.

“We ask two main questions that are until now without answers: how the state would behave if Arabs or Christians were attacking the Jewish side; and how the state would behave if Jews abroad were targeted,” he said.

Abunassar, who lives in Haifa, said that nine incidents had taken place at Haifa's Stella Maris Monastery in the last three months alone. An Arab Christian was arrested for assault in one of those incidents, the police said.

“I wouldn’t even imagine there would be nine incidents against any Jewish shrine anywhere in the world without any serious action by the state authority,” he said.

The current far-right government has created an atmosphere where “some radical Jews feel as if they are immune,” Abunassar said.

Internal Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir has close ties with Benzi Gopstein, head of an anti-assimilation group, Lehava, which frequently protests against Christian events. Gopstein himself has called for the burning of mosques and churches in Israel. Fires were lit at the Church of Fish and Loaves in Galilee in 2015, and the Church of Gethsemane in Jerusalem in 2020. Jews were arrested in both cases.

Yisca Harani, an Israeli scholar of Christianity, organized the conference together with the Open University and the University of Haifa and created the Religious Freedom Data Center “in response to the sad reality of recurrent acts of violence against Christian citizens and resident Christian clergy, religious edifices, and symbols in Jerusalem and throughout Israel.”

Harani told The Media Line that even if only a few people carry out such attacks, “we need a very firm hand vis-à-vis such incidents” and must monitor what is being taught in the schools.

“The sentiment of Jewish nationalism has grown and developed a new pole, a new skeleton, around which to define itself and that is as the archenemy of Christianity,” she said.

She called this a new phenomenon that stems from a denial of information or wrong information about Christians. Proper education about Christianity should be taught in Israeli schools rather than contempt or holding all Christians today accountable for what happened in the Holocaust, Harani said.

Harani sent the July report to The Media Line and said she was planning to send it to embassies and appropriate international bodies in order to raise awareness.

The data center will help secure protection for Christians, Jubran said.

“It is one thing to say, 'Christians are under attack’ and to say it in general,” he said. “It is another thing to have an academic founding or basis for what you say in order for Custody or the patriarch to point to numbers. This is more reliable.”

It will also enable the church to pursue legal action if necessary and helps with international advocacy in venues outside Israel. Jubran said that at the moment he sees a lack of accountability.

“People feel that if they do something, nobody will punish them. There is not sufficient deterrence,” he said.

Christians comprise about 1.9% of the Israeli population, according to figures from 2022, with Jews making up 73.6% and Muslims 18.1%. Under the 1948 declaration establishing the State of Israel, freedom of religion is guaranteed for all, and each religious community is legally entitled to practice its faith, worship in its own unique places, observe its own holidays and days of rest, and administer its own internal affairs.

Will Christians have a mass exodus from Israel?

However, church leaders fear that Christians will seek security abroad rather than stay in a place they feel threatened.

“Christians are a minority within a minority; they live in a sensitive situation,” Jubran said. “They protect themselves, have their own schools, and when they feel there is an attack on their way of life they feel personally threatened, because the next step is an attack on an individual who is wearing a cross or a Christian sign.”

Christians are concerned that the situation at Stella Maris could escalate, with Jewish groups going there to pray and to show solidarity and Christian protesters all converging there in recent weeks.

Abunassar said that even if the site was proven to be Elisha’s tomb, that would not make it solely a Jewish site.

“Elisha is important for Christians too because we believe in the Old Testament,” he said.