Christians warn of increasing attacks, intolerance in Israel as violence escalates

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

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, blames the recent uptick in attacks in the Christian quarter on radical Jewish extremists feeling empowered and "protected" under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Pizzaballa told The Associated Press that the Christian community in the region is experiencing heightened assaults from extremists, who he claims are gaining confidence from Israel’s most conservative government in recent history. These extremists, he added, have been increasingly harassing clergy and damaging religious properties at a concerning pace.

“The frequency of these attacks, the aggressions, has become something new,” Pizzaballa was quoted as saying. “These people feel they are protected … that the cultural and political atmosphere now can justify, or tolerate, actions against Christians.”

During Easter Holy week, thousands of Christians from various denominations were dismayed by Israeli authorities' decision to reduce the number of people allowed to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City from 10,000 to 1,800, citing safety and fire concerns. 

The Jordanian Foreign Ministry condemned Israel’s decision to limit the number of Christian participants in the Holy Fire ceremony at the church in Jerusalem's Old City.

In a statement, the foreign ministry warned against the restrictions and “rejecting all measures taken by Israel to restrict freedom of worship,” Haaretz reported.

Citing the church having only two exits, Israeli police imposed a limit of 1,800 worshipers. However, following accusations from the Greek Orthodox Church that the police were violating the freedom of worshipers with their “heavy-handed” restrictions, the cap was raised to 2,200.

Some Christian and Muslim groups are also outraged by the government’s inclusion of settler leaders in key roles, such as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. Many church leaders also oppose the government's plans to create a national park on the Mount of Olives, as a threat to the Christian presence in the holy city.

“The right-wing elements are out to Judaize the Old City and the other lands, and we feel nothing is holding them back now,” Fr. Don Binder, a pastor at St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem, was quoted as saying. “Churches have been the major stumbling block.”

“There are things that make us worry about our very existence,” Bishop Sani Ibrahim Azar of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem, added. “But without hope, more and more of us will leave.”

Currently, there are about 15,000 Christians in Jerusalem, with the majority being Palestinians. 

Yusef Daher from the Inter-Church Center told the AP that 2023 is shaping up to be the worst year for Christians in a decade. The center has documented at least seven serious cases of vandalism of church properties from January to mid-March, a sharp increase from six anti-Christian cases recorded in all of 2022, the newswire said.

In February, a 10-foot statue of Jesus was found knocked off its pedestal and partially destroyed at the Church of the Flagellation, the site believed to be along the path taken by Jesus as he carried his cross to his crucifixion.

The suspect, an American man in his 40s, was arrested for vandalizing a statue of Jesus Christ at a church in Jerusalem, reportedly due to his belief that the statue constituted idolatry. In a video taken at the church, the man could be heard shouting, "you can’t have idols in Jerusalem, this is a holy city."

Hundreds of Catholic students recently took part in a march as part of a traditional event along the Via Dolorosa in the Old City. While this march is held every year commemorating the season of Lent, this year, students took part in the procession wearing identical red scarves with an image of the broken statue of Christ on their way to the Church of the Flagellation, according to the Times of Israel.

Earlier this month, Orthodox leaders urged the international community to help protect the Holy City.

In an Easter message from a coalition of “Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem” under Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, Christian leaders warned the rise in attacks had come “in spite of our agreements to cooperate with the governing authorities, and to accommodate any reasonable requests that they might present.”

The statement called on the international community and “local residents of goodwill” to “help secure the safety, access, and religious freedom of the resident Christian community and the millions of Christian pilgrims annually visiting the Holy Land — as well as the maintenance of the religious Status Quo.”

Noting the centrality of the Holy City in both the resurrection of Christ and throughout the Gospels, the statement also noted it was “in Jerusalem that the angel first greeted the women at the empty tomb, proclaiming, “Do not be afraid ... He is not here; for He has been raised (Matthew 28:5-6).

In January, Christian leaders condemned an attack on an Armenian restaurant in Jerusalem's Christian quarter, warning that the "radical aggression" by a group of radical Jews aimed to impose an exclusively "Jewish character" on the city.

The January incident, captured on CCTV footage, showed the group shouting and carrying Israeli flags while engaging in a shoving match and violently throwing chairs at patrons outside the Taboon Wine Bar restaurant. One individual was seen using an aerosol can to spray an unknown liquid at those gathered outside. Police reportedly arrived an hour after being informed of the attack, and although they ordered the attackers to leave, no arrests were made.

“This unprovoked violence instilled fear in the shopkeepers and residents of the Christian quarter as well as visitors,” the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, which brings together the leaders of the various Catholic churches in the region, said in a statement. “It is only the latest in a series of episodes of religious violence that is affecting the symbols of the Christian community and beyond.”

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