A faith-based relationship

Coexistence organizations in the capital are finding it increasingly difficult to educate about the importance of promoting tolerance and understanding among Christians and Jews.

Christians 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Christians 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A ceremony last week marking the first anniversary of the premature death of Daniel Rossing, former special counselor for Christian communities at the Foreign Ministry, became an opportunity to hear about these communities’ concerns.
The speakers at the symposium, held in Rossing’s memory at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS) in Rehavia, depicted the difficult situation of the Christian communities represented in the capital.
“A city of the between” is what Rossing, a German-born Protestant who converted to Judaism, used to call the city in which he guided thousands of visitors from abroad – pilgrims, youth and regular visitors – with the aim of enabling different faiths and communities to live together.
He was the founder and director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (JCJCR), which worked closely with the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, headed by Dr. Ron Kronish, to establish, develop and consolidate relations between representatives of the two faiths.
While the ceremony participants praised both Rossing and his actions, the representatives of some of the city’s Christian communities expressed deep concern about the deterioration of ties between their members and some yeshiva students in the Old City.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Amnon Ramon of the JIIS recalled Rossing’s intense efforts to enhance the dialogue between Jews and Christians while serving at the ministry and, later on, as the founder of the center. Diplomacy, understanding, an unending search for common ground and a genuine respect for the Christian communities lay at the base of Rossing’s attitude, and earned him these communities’ respect in return, he said.
However, though none of the Christian speakers went so far as to say openly that relations between the sides were worsening, it was clear that things were not simple, especially regarding priests’ encounters with haredi (ultra-Orthodox) individuals in the streets of Jerusalem.
A survey conducted in 2008 by the JCJCR and the JIIS revealed that many priests, particularly those living in the Old City, were subject to harassment – such as spitting – and varying levels of suspicion or anger. The main findings of the survey showed that a relative tolerance was to be found primarily among people who described themselves as secular (53 percent) and mostly of Ashkenazi background (28%).
Another finding was that 68% of secular respondents felt it was necessary to teach Jewish pupils in local schools about Christianity. However, only 29% of secular people believed Israel should allow bodies to purchase properties in Jerusalem to build new churches.
Much more negative attitudes were revealed among those who defined themselves as haredi (10% of the sample) and national religious (13% of the sample). Of these groups together, 95% argued that Israel did not have to allow Christian bodies to purchase land in Jerusalem to build new churches, 90% maintained that it was not necessary to teach the New Testament in Israeli schools, and 73% felt that it was not necessary to teach students about Christianity at all. In addition, 85% indicated that they did not have Christian friends or acquaintances here or abroad, 83% argued that it was forbidden for Jews to enter a church, 79% believed that Jewish organizations should not accept financial assistance from Christian bodies, 78% agreed with the statement that “Christianity is an idolatrous religion,” 60% indicated that seeing a Christian wearing a cross in the street bothered them and 43% believed that all or most Christians were missionaries.
According to the survey, Jewish residents of the Jerusalem area appeared to be less tolerant of Christianity, Christians and the Christian presence in the country (a possible explanation for this is that the percentage of haredi and Orthodox in the capital’s Jewish population is much higher than the national average). Nonetheless, more Jews in the Jerusalem area (54%) than in the national sample (50%) agreed that Jerusalem was a central city for the Christian world, perhaps because they personally encountered this more directly.
All these findings are well known to church representatives, including those who participated in the symposium. Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, director of ecumenical and foreign relations for the Armenian Patriarchate, mentioned at length the trend of young haredi students spitting and cursing at Armenian priests. The Jewish community living in Armenia enjoys a much better status, he said, hinting that continued deterioration of the situation in Jerusalem could have a negative influence.
“We wouldn’t want to see anti- Semitism appearing in Armenia,” he concluded.
Father Dr. David Neuhaus of the Latin Patriarchate’s Vicariate for Hebrew- Speaking Catholics – himself a Jew who converted to Catholicism – reminded the audience of the sufferings of the Palestinian Christian population, and not only in Jerusalem.
Kronish’s conclusion, about how greatly the absence of a peacemaker like Rossing was felt, seemed to echo the Christian representative’s concern.
According to a Jerusalem Police source, four yeshiva students were recently arrested and questioned about their involvement in spitting incidents in the Old City, but Shirvanian insisted that while this was “good news,” there was still a lot to do to improve the haredi attitude toward Christians in Jerusalem. •