An increasing number of discriminatory incidents against Christians in Israel in recent months have seemingly come to a head after the World Council of Churches released a statement rebuking Israeli authorities for denying entry to Christian pilgrims to the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.
On Friday, August 18, Christians traveling to the holy site for the Feast of the Transfiguration were turned away by police who claimed the facility could not handle such a large group of people.
Ultimately, of some 3,000 Christians who traveled to Israel in order to participate in the event, only several dozen succeeded in reaching the church.
At the same time, Christian organizations in Israel have expressed worry over the feeling that they are slowly but surely being pushed out of the country.
According to the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, the Interior Ministry has ceased to grant work or clergy visas to Christian groups, leaving them to rely instead on the slim chance of obtaining a limiting volunteer visa.
And all of this comes as attacks against Jerusalem's Christian community, which numbers some 16,400 people, have picked up, to the extent that the Israeli Tourism Ministry deemed it necessary to convene a forum on the topic.
Attacks range from verbal abuse all the way to stone-throwing and vandalism, with one particularly grievous incident resulting in damage to 30 graves at a Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
The fear of missionarism
Both the attacks, which are being carried out by a small group of Haredi Jewish extremists, and what appears to be a systemic approach to clamping down on the freedoms of Christians in Israel, appear to stem from a fear of missionary activity, with far-right Jerusalem deputy mayor Aryeh King saying that he can "support tourism but not missionaries" in a meeting in June of this year.
And, one month prior to that, in May, dozens of Orthodox Jews protested against a group of Christians holding a day of prayer near the Kotel, claiming that they were missionaries and that "missionary terrorism is as dangerous as Islamic terrorism."
In March of 2023, an attempt was made to pass a bill that would punish Christian missionaries with prison time, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shelved the bill after concerns from the Christian community that it would lead to increased harassment and discrimination.
The bill would have built on the 1977 Penal Code, which forbids missionaries from distributing material enticement to convert, proselytizing to minors, or holding conversion ceremonies for minors without the consent of parents.
And while it is unclear if the increasing attacks on Christians, and the move by Israeli authorities to prevent them from reaching their places of worship or from coming to work in Israel, are connected to the decision to table the bill against missionaries, the timing shouldn't be ignored.
Fears of missionaries targeting young children or vulnerable populations are legitimate and must be dealt with, but they are no excuse for Jewish Israelis to take the law into their own hands, attacking clergy members and vandalizing places of worship.
Should individual Christians be caught breaking existing laws against proselytizing, they should be handled according to the letter of the law.
But the mere act of existing as a Christian in Israel should not be treated as a crime by government bodies or police.
Israel rightly prides itself on allowing freedom of worship to all who wish to practice their religion. Equality regardless of religion is enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. It is intrinsic to the country’s national character and cannot be allowed to change.
Moreover, Christians are among Israel’s most devoted supporters around the world. How must they feel when they see their fellow Christian adherents being treated this way in the country they love and support?
Authorities must find a way to clamp down on illegal missionary activity without discriminating against the wider Christian population, while simultaneously apprehending Jewish extremists who find it permissible to take matters into their own hands and ensuring that Christians and members of all faiths feel safe and protected in the Jewish state.