Attacks on Christians in Israel surged in 2023: Spitting on clergy, pepper spraying US citizen

Christian Quarter street in Jerusalem city. The sign is in three languages.
Christian Quarter street in Jerusalem city. The sign is in three languages. | Getty Images

A heightened sense of impunity and nationalism contributed to a surge in attacks on Christians and church properties in Israel in 2023, according to a Jerusalem-based inter-religious organization report.

“While hostility towards the Christian presence has been a longstanding occurrence in some local communities, it has now escalated to a broader and more severe phenomenon,” the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue stated in a report released this month.

A growing sense of insecurity among Christians is linked to the wider socio-political context, according to Christian leaders and experts on Christianity in Israel, the report states.

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“As the Cardinal of Jerusalem, Pier Battista Pizzaballa, said regarding the spike in attacks, ‘These people [the attackers] feel they are protected … that the cultural and political atmosphere now can justify, or tolerate, actions against Christians,” states the report, titled, “Attacks on Christians in Israel and East Jerusalem.”

Christian communities saw a significant increase in both the frequency and intensity of harassment, according to the report.

“The targeting of Christianity is not, on the whole, explicitly encouraged by the political leadership or the Israeli authorities,” the report states. “However, the rise in attacks correlates with a broader socio-political climate marked by a shift towards the far-right, growing nationalism, and an emphasis on Israel as a state for the Jewish population which has impacted the unique majority/minority dynamics of Jewish-Christian relations in the Holy Land.”

The center documented 32 attacks on church properties in 2023, seven violent attacks on Christians, 11 cases of verbal harassment, cemetery desecration and 30 cases of spitting on or toward clergy and pilgrims.

“Spitting has been a known occurrence in religious life in Jerusalem for decades, but it has transformed from a covert act to perpetrators openly spitting at clergy, holy places, and even pilgrims, in broad daylight, before crowds and in the presence of security cameras,” the report notes.

Spitting constitutes felony assault, according to Article 378 of Israeli penal law, and if done for a racial or religious reason, punishment is either doubled or 10 years in prison, whichever is lesser, the report states. Victims are generally not aware of the law and do not report it, and police would tend to dismiss most reports as non-violent and irrelevant, it states.

“Consequently, a common attitude among religious individuals, particularly those from Eastern traditions, is a form of acceptance of this insulting behavior, mostly out of humility,” the report states. “A smile and a silent blessing are typically the response to unknown passersby who engage in spitting.”

Besides spitting, physical attacks included pepper spraying and hitting. A group of Jewish Orthodox men in March 2023 forcibly entered a shop in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, pepper-sprayed a U.S. Christian working there as a volunteer and punched him in the face, according to the report.

“Subsequently, a group of Jewish children barricaded the door to the shop. He was spat at from the synagogue located above the store on multiple occasions, and liquids were poured on him from above while he was opening the shop door,” the report states. “Additionally, Jewish Orthodox men would display knives in his presence, while others verbally harassed him during work hours, labeling him as a ‘missionary.’”

The accusation tarnished his relationships with potential Jewish customers, and eventually the intimidations compelled him to leave his position, the report states.

Two young Jewish men on Jan. 28, 2023, attacked a car carrying two Armenians near an Armenian compound, and when the victims asked why, they were pepper-sprayed in the eyes, according to the Armenian Patriarchate. They received hospital treatment and reported the attack to police, and an hour after police apprehended one of the assailants, a large group of young Jewish men tried to climb the Patriarchate’s building with the intention of removing its flag and the Armenian flag.

Young Armenian men prevented them from doing so, causing the Jewish group to flee, but some members returned and started provoking the Armenian youth, according to the report.

“The Jewish young men ran towards the police station, falsely claiming a terrorist attack was taking place,” the report states. “In response, the police attacked the Armenian youths and detained one of them. Following the intervention by His Beatitude Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, and with court approval, the detained Armenian was released, and after medical examination and treatment for his injuries, placed under house arrest for 20 days awaiting trial. He was eventually released, but it is not clear if the case is still pending.”

Some communities near Jewish neighborhoods, such as the Armenians in the Old City of Jerusalem and a Polish monastery on the border of the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, endured repeated attacks throughout the year, according to the Rossing Center.

“Based on compiled records of known attacks in previous years, 2023 also witnessed a notable increase in both severe property and physical assaults,” it states. “The Polish monastery bordering Mea Shearim experienced various forms of harassment over several months. ... The abuses ceased only after the community began reporting to the Religious Freedom Data Center hotline. ... The heightened police presence successfully deterred assailants, leading to a halt in the most severe assaults. Nevertheless, instances of spitting, verbal harassment, and the throwing of objects and garbage into the compound from a nearby building persisted.”

Christians make up about 1.9% of Israel’s population, of which 75.3% are Arab Christians — 6.9% of the total Arab population in Israel, according to report, citing Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. Jews constitute 73% of Israel’s 9.8 million people, with Ultra-Orthodox members accounting for 13% of the total population. Arabs represented 21.1% of the total population.

Missionary activity is not illegal in Israel, the Rossing Center noted.

“It is often wrongly believed that the practice is outlawed in Israel, while the only restrictions declare that it is illegal to proselytize to a person younger than 18 without the consent of both parents and to offer material benefit to potential converts while proselytizing,” the report states.

Originally published at Christian Daily International 

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