Faith in the system?

Many of Jerusalem’s Christians believe not enough effort is being made to improve their status.

Christians in Jerusalem 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Christians in Jerusalem 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In Shalom Aleichem’s play Hard to Be a Jew, a young non- Jewish student switches places with his Jewish friend so he can see for himself how difficult it is to be Jew in a gentile society. Christian clergymen serving in Jerusalem, however, seem to be experiencing the opposite problem, having become a target for local Jewish attacks and harassment – ranging from spitting to curses and mockery to, more recently, obscene graffiti and the burning of monasteries.
“It is indeed hard to be a Christian in Jerusalem, and in general in Israel,” confirms Dr. Amnon Ramon, a scholar in the history of the local Christian communities, with a deep sigh. “They suffer from different sides, and as a result, the Christian community as such in the country is practically fading away.”
The figures speak for themselves: On the eve of Christmas 2010, Christians represented a small minority of the capital’s population: 1.9 percent (compared to 19% in 1946). The number of Christians in Jerusalem has decreased, from 31,300 in 1946 to 14,600 at the end of 2010. While the Roman Catholic community in the city enjoys – by comparison – the best conditions and status, mostly thanks to the strong position and funding of the Vatican, the remaining 14 communities live in less than optimal conditions, not least of which is the government’s apparent indifference to their troubles.
At the end of the approximately 300 pages of Ramon’s new book Christianity and Christians in the Jewish State – published recently by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, where he serves as a senior scholar – he adds a list of recommendations for the government and authorities to adopt toward the Christians living here. The recommendations do not sound particularly difficult to approve and implement, yet Ramon, who has been following the situation of the country’s Christian communities for years, doesn’t sound very optimistic.
“When an MK [Michael Ben-Ari of the National Union] contemptuously tears up the New Testament while standing at the podium in the Knesset, why should we be surprised to see young Jews from the religious right wing setting fire to monasteries or spitting in clergymen’s faces?” he asks.
There are 15 communities of Christians represented in the city, “an exceptional situation that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” remarks Ramon. Indeed, every one of the Christian congregations and bodies operating in the city represents large communities comprising millions of adherents worldwide. Jerusalem is the only city in the world in which nearly all Christian churches and denominations seek to establish a presence – and have done so – writes Ramon.
In addition, he says, there is no doubt that despite its small numbers, the Christian sector is of the utmost importance in strengthening Jerusalem’s universal standing. Both Israelis and Palestinians have a clear interest in preserving the status of the Christian element.
“In fact,” he adds, “Christianity was to a large extent the ‘loudspeaker’ that broadcast the holiness of Jerusalem throughout the world and made it a ‘global city.’ Jerusalem is the only city in the world that is sacred to all Christian denominations and organizations, as well as to Judaism and Islam. The disappearance of Christian communities and churches from the panorama of the city and surrounding metropolis would strike a severe blow to the charm of the city and to its special standing, which is unparalleled anywhere in the world.”
This is to say nothing of the considerable weight Christian pilgrims carry when it comes to the country’s tourism figures, particularly for Jerusalem.
There are four distinct Christian communities in the city (beyond the 15 churches represented here). The first group includes all the Christian denominations (both clergymen and Arab Christian residents), then come the non-Arab Christians (mostly new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who obtained Israeli citizenship through the Law of Return), foreign workers (Filipinos, South Americans and Ethiopians), and the refugees from east Africa. Each of these groups has a different status vis-à-vis both each other and the Israeli establishment.
While one can say that the unofficial Israeli attitude toward the local Christian communities ranges from indifference to animosity, these communities’ view of the city’s official status does not help matters.
For example, Jerusalem is still not recognized as the capital of Israel – even by the Vatican, despite the tremendous improvement in the quality of its relationship with Israel. This is a source of many paradoxical situations, one of them being the location of the nuncio apostolico, the official representative of the Vatican to the “occupied” territories: He sits in Jerusalem – which the Holy See does not recognize – while the Vatican Embassy sits in Jaffa. The nuncio’s official home, which serves traditionally as the residence of popes visiting the Holy Land, is on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, a few meters from the Beit Orot yeshiva and institutions, and this adds to the tension, since national-religious circles are not, in general, supportive of the Christian presence.
While Ramon’s research focuses on the characteristics and statuses of the various Christian communities, what has been attracting attention recently is the repeated attacks on Christian clergymen and the apparent “price tag” incidents against monasteries and other Christian sites: the arson at the Latrun Monastery, the graffiti on Mount Zion’s Dormition Abbey, and the harassment of clergymen walking in the Old City’s narrow streets – mostly Armenians, whose institutions are close to some of the yeshivot in the neighboring Jewish Quarter.
At a JIIS conference a few months ago, Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, the director of the ecumenical and foreign relations of the Armenian Patriarchate in the Old City, expressed his anger and anxiety in the face of incidents involving young yeshiva students, especially spitting on clergymen or on the cross during some religious processions.
“We feel we are not really protected,” says Shirvanian when asked to what extent he and his community felt targeted. “This situation has been going on for too long. The police haven’t managed to get a hold on [the perpetrators], and we are exposed, helpless, to these hooligans. This cannot go on like that anymore.”
According to Ramon, there has been a trend of extremism and deterioration in the Orthodox Jewish community’s attitude toward Christians over the past few years.
“The Christian issue – presented as a threat to Judaism – has gained a kind of high priority, I would say, sometimes even more acute than [concerns about] the Arabs, where the conflict already exists, as if some rabbis are conveying a message that [the Christian presence] is much more dangerous and urgent to deal with,” he says.
Ramon explains that this attitude has obviously led some of the youth in the religious communities to “translate into acts” some of the words of certain rabbis, for whom Christianity is blasphemy – hence the rise in the frequency and severity of the price tag attacks.
On top of this, he mentions examples of right-wing religious political leaders encouraging young people to “take action” – such as spitting or damaging property – against Christians living here.
Ramon believes that at least at the state level, the animosity is not a pre-planned policy, but a combination of factors.
“I believe it is altogether the [sad] result of an overly busy Israeli policy agenda, with strong psychological residues [of animosity toward the Christian world], which have, on the bottom line, led to a kind of neglect of the issue,” he explains.
Nonetheless, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry have made a few efforts (perhaps too few, hints Ramon) at improvement.
OFFICIALLY, SINCE the dismantling of the Religious Affairs Ministry (today a small administration inside the Prime Minister’s Office), there is no organized address for the Christian communities living here. Even before the ministry was shut down, though, it was in the hands of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Shas party, which didn’t make things easier for the Christians, considering the party’s antagonistic stance toward Christianity.
The Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, has largely taken a more serious approach to the topic, as it understands how important good relations with the Christian world are for Israel’s status in the international community.
The ministry has a coordinator/consultant position devoted to contacts between the state and the Christian communities (although for the moment, it is vacant due to the end of the last coordinator’s mission, until a new coordinator takes over).
For now, says Ramon, it seems that the state’s general policy toward the Christian minorities is closer to damage control and ad-hoc reactions to incidents, than to a planned policy.
With regard to the Jerusalem Christian communities, Ramon doesn’t hide his pessimism.
“The process of decline in the numbers of Christians here is reaching a critical point,” he says. “I’m afraid we’re might be soon facing a situation of an ‘endangered species’ with regard to these communities.”
Although according to the figures gathered at the JIIS there has been some population stability in recent years, the general direction is clear: Whoever can leave – and many of the Christians have the means, both financial and educational – does so, mostly for the US or South America.
“Even if their numbers are a little bit more stable,” adds Ramon, “by comparison to the Muslims and the Jews in the city, where the birthrate is reaching the highest figures known, the Christians are, in fact, decreasing.”
Amir, an Armenian businessman in his early 40s, agrees with Ramon’s findings.
“The Israelis care only about what happens with the Arab world and the Muslims here,” he argues. “We have been completely neglected.”
Though his love for Jerusalem is deep, he says, he is seriously considering moving to the US. In perfect Hebrew, he explains his motives: “There is nothing for me here – I can’t even find a spouse, nor consider any good future for eventual children. I am already spending a large part of my time abroad, for my business, so slowly but surely, I spend more time abroad than here. One day, clearly, I will leave [for good].”
Asked to describe what led him to this point, he becomes almost angry.
“What do I have here?” he demands. “For you, the Jews, I am an Arab – an enemy. For the Arabs, I am a Christian, an intruder. If I am among Jewish friends – and I do have some – I know there is a limit not to be trespassed, for I am a ‘goy,’ as you call us. With the Arabs, I have nothing in common – not the religious beliefs, not the mentality, not the political agenda – what do I have to say about Palestinian problems? They are not my problems.
I am a man of peace, I want to do business, to make money and improve my quality of life. Can I achieve that here in Jerusalem, as a Christian and an Armenian? Of course not! And the Israeli authorities cannot even keep me or my priests safe when [we] walk in the streets.”
ANOTHER ASPECT of Christian life in Jerusalem is the need for affordable and appropriate housing, and in that regard, the Catholic Church seems to have the best track record of providing solutions. Two recent housing projects have given some hope to the members of this community: the Beit Fadji project (close to the nuncio’s residence), with 60 apartments built and already inhabited; and a second project, still under construction, in the Sharafat neighborhood – also on the church’s lands – which offers about 30 apartments.
The other achievement is the Catholic University in Bethlehem, which is easily accessible to Jerusalem students.
This is one instance in which the involvement of the Prime Minister’s Office and Foreign Ministry have enabled a positive outcome, by enabling easy passage for the students.
But despite these few examples, life in Jerusalem is far from easy for Christians, says Ramon. While the Catholics enjoy better status thanks to the powerful Vatican, the rest of the communities are caught between the parties involved in the local conflict.
“They are squeezed between radical Islam, which demands full faithfulness [to that religion], and some criminal circles [who encourage them to participate in criminal activity]. And while the Palestinian Authority respects their rights, they are totally dependent on its status – exactly like the Jews used to be once, when depending on the capacity of the official authority to control things,” he says.
Among the Armenians, there is a serious crisis regarding the young generation’s willingness to remain here. The Greek Orthodox, meanwhile, suffer from another problem: While their clergymen and authorities are all Greek, the local members of the community are Arabs who do not even share the same language, and there is a strong feeling of disconnection between the two parties.
“The worst situation is that of the Syrian Orthodox Church community, which numbers barely 200-300 people and is very isolated, and of the Ethiopian Church, which is confronted with a significant change in its members – very few Ethiopians and many more Eritreans who have arrived here as refugees – and that evidently causes lots of tensions,” explains Ramon.
One bright spot, at least, in this rather dark picture is the change in the attitude of the Jerusalem mayor’s office toward the city’s Christian communities. Ramon says that in cooperation with the JIIS, Mayor Nir Barkat has considerably improved relations with these communities.
“He has visited them on their holy days, talked to them and decided on a series of steps to improve their situation [via] construction permits, and we already see some improvement – certainly... in the atmosphere, probably also because this mayor understands the high potential of the Christians [to bring] tourism to the city.”
People and population
According to data provided by the Central Bureau of Statistics, at the end of 2010 a total of 11,576 Arab Christians lived in Jerusalem. Of these, 4,348 (38 percent) lived in the Old City (2,872 in the Christian Quarter, 1,140 in the Muslim Quarter, 258 in the Armenian Quarter and 78 in the area of the Jewish Quarter).
Since the Six Day War there has been some stability in the number of Christians in Jerusalem. While in September 1967 they numbered 12,900, by 1988 the number reached 14,400, a figure that has remained stable to this day. Their percentage within the city’s population, however, has decreased from 2.9% in 1988 to 1.9% at the end of 2010, as a result of a low birthrate and the absence of Christian immigration to the city, especially in comparison to the large increase in the city’s Muslim and Jewish populations.
As of the end of 2010, 3,029 non-Arab Christians lived in Jerusalem, including Armenians (residents of the Armenian Quarter), clergy, monks and nuns, Christians holding Israeli citizenship or residency, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union who identify as Christians. Of the non-Arab Christians, 492 (16%) live in the Armenian Quarter, 300 (10%) in the Christian Quarter, 76 in the Muslim Quarter, and 36 in the Jewish Quarter area. An additional 201 reside in the neighborhoods of Beit Hanina and Shuafat and 95 in the areas of the Mount of Olives, Wadi Joz, Sheikh Jarrah and Bab e-Zahara; 61 live in the Ethiopian neighborhood (presumably mostly Ethiopian monks and nuns or Ethiopian and Eritrean citizens); and 56 in the area of Mount Zion and Abu Tor (presumably mostly monks and nuns as well as Christian students at the Christian institutions on Mount Zion).
A total of 223 non-Arab Christians (presumably mainly immigrants from the former Soviet Union and other countries) live in the area of Neveh Ya’acov and Pisgat Ze’ev; 207 in the areas of Kiryat Hayovel, Ir Ganim, and Kiryat Menahem; 259 in the areas of Geulim (Baka), Talpiot, and East Talpiot; and 103 in Gilo. There is also an unknown number of foreign workers and refugees (mainly from South Sudan and Eritrea) who work in Jerusalem, in addition to the community of Filipinos.
According to the findings of a survey of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS) carried out during the 1990s, there are 160 churches in Jerusalem (including churches within schools and Christian institutions) and 117 Christian institutions and sites in the Old City and Mount Zion, which altogether hold lands totaling approximately 5,000 acres – nearly six times the territory of the Old City.
Approximately 20 educational institutions in the Jerusalem area are affiliated with various Christian churches or organizations. A large portion of the students at these institutions is Muslim. As for institutes of higher education, there are the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, the Franciscan Biblical School on the Via Dolorosa, the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Beit Joseph of the Dormition Abbey, the German Protestant Institute of Archeology at Augusta Victoria, the Dominicans’ Ecole Biblique on Nablus Road and the Swedish Theological Institute at Hanevi’im Street.
A total of 66% (approximately 2.4 million) of the tourists who visited Israel and Jerusalem in 2010 were Christian (compared to 30% Jews). Approximately 25 hostels for pilgrims and tourists in Jerusalem operate churches and Christian organizations. Among the bestknown hostels are Casa Nova (the Franciscan hostel), the Austrian Hospice and the Lutheran Guest House in the Old City; the large hotel operating in the Notre Dame Center near the New Gate; St Andrew’s Scottish Guest House; and the YMCA.– P.C.