Jerusalem church leader: Israeli radicals threatening Christian presence in Old City

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theofilos III (C) arrives at the Church of the Nativity for the Orthodox Christmas celebrations on January 6, 2022, in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theofilos III (C) arrives at the Church of the Nativity for the Orthodox Christmas celebrations on January 6, 2022, in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ. | HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

Weeks after some church leaders in Jerusalem called for a special cultural heritage zone for Christians in Jerusalem, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem said Israeli radical fringe groups are seeking to drive the Christian community out of the city.

“Our presence in Jerusalem is under threat,” Theophilos III, the patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, wrote in an op-ed in The Times (of London).

“Our churches are threatened by Israeli radical fringe groups. At the hands of these Zionist extremists the Christian community in Jerusalem is suffering greatly. Our brothers and sisters are the victims of hate crimes. Our churches are regularly desecrated and vandalized. Our clergy are subject to frequent intimidation,” he continued.

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He believes the “sworn intent of these radical groups is to extinguish the light of the Christian community from the Old City.”

The patriarch noted that the radical groups, which are “not representative of the state of Israel or the Jewish people,” are seeking to occupy “through illegitimate transactions” two big buildings at the Jaffa Gate area, which lies on the pilgrim route to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church was built on the spot where both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected.

“Local families, who have lived here for generations, will be made to feel unwelcome in their own home and pilgrims who have longed to visit the birthplace of the Christian faith will have their experience diminished,” Theophilos III warned.

“By working to exclude one community, the Christians, these radicals pose an existential threat not only to the Christian family but to Jerusalem itself, a point upheld by so many of our Jewish cohabitants of the Holy Land,” he added.

The Old City, which is part of East Jerusalem that was captured by Israel, has sites sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 in what is known as the Six-Day War.

Before Christmas, the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem spoke with concern about the rising trend of violence against Christians in the Holy Land.

“Since 2012 there have been countless incidents of physical and verbal assaults against priests and other clergy, attacks on Christian churches, with holy sites regularly vandalized and desecrated, and ongoing intimidation of local Christians who simply seek to worship freely and go about their daily lives,” they stated in a statement.

“These tactics are being used by such radical groups in a systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.”

The church leaders went on to note that while they appreciated the Israeli government’s commitment “to uphold a safe and secure home for Christians in the Holy Land,” they believed that this commitment was being undermined by “local politicians, officials and law enforcement agencies to curb the activities of radical groups.”

“The principle that the spiritual and cultural character of Jerusalem’s distinct and historic quarters should be protected is already recognized in Israeli law with respect to the Jewish Quarter,” continued the church leaders.

The World Council of Churches’ acting general secretary, the Rev. Ioan Sauca, issued a statement in support of the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem.

“Recognizing the gravity of the threat accelerating the already tragically steep decline in the Christian presence, the WCC strongly supports the church leaders’ call for an urgent dialogue with the political authorities of Israel, Palestine and Jordan with a view to addressing the challenges posed by radical groups and to protecting and supporting the Christian community,” Sauca said.

During the Christmas season, Israel faced allegations of discrimination for not easing a travel ban for Christian pilgrims seeking to visit the country.

While Israel eased a restriction on travel due to the omicron variant of COVID-19 for Jewish individuals seeking the “Birthright” program, they maintained the ban for non-Jewish Christian pilgrims.

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