The fate of Christians in the Holy Land
Violence and intimidation stalk Jerusalem this Easter
Violence once again accompanies the observance of Easter, Ramadan and Passover in the Holy Land: Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel have been met with Israeli Defence Force reprisals; the barricades are up in the Al-Aqsa mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount; two British-Israeli sisters have been killed in the West Bank; a Palestinian car-ramming attack in Tel Aviv killed one tourist and injured seven more. No visitor to the region’s holy sites — and to Jerusalem in particular — can fail to appreciate just how closely the three Abrahamic religions’ historic places of worship and pilgrimage neighbour one another. And how little neighbourliness there is.
Not that all the divisions are strictly sectarian. Endemic corruption surrounds the Palestinian Authority’s leadership and its consequences are felt by ordinary Palestinians. There is even greater unease about what the next generation of the PA’s leaders will bring. Meanwhile, as weeks of protest attest, Israeli society is divided over whether the robust direction that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition is taking the country represents the toughness required to defend a vulnerable state or, in pitting Israeli against Israeli, is unintentionally undermining it from within.
This Easter, however, is also a moment to reflect on the fate of the region’s embattled Christians. In the first half of the twentieth century, they comprised approximately 10 per cent of Palestine’s population and nearly a quarter of Jerusalem’s inhabitants. Most could claim that their families had lived there for centuries — many for a Millennia or more. They stood out as among the most active and certainly the best-educated groups in what was until the end of the First World War part of the Ottoman Empire. Their exodus — and, in places, expulsion — from Israel amid the strife accompanying its 1948 creation and fight for survival, together with subsequent migration and demographic change, has proportionately shrunk them to a fraction of their former status. Most of Jerusalem’s once distinguished Christian Palestinian families now live in far distant lands.
Today, Christians constitute less than 2 per cent of Israel’s population and, at best, a similar proportion of East Jerusalem and the West Bank’s population. They are now a small minority even in places like Bethlehem where once they were predominant. In Gaza only one thousand of them remain among the Strip’s two million population.
But whichever side of the checkpoints they reside, and regardless of the denomination they follow, Christians in the historic Holy Land are overwhelmingly Arab Palestinians. One message that was repeatedly conveyed in the time I spent leading up to Palm Sunday talking to leaders of Jerusalem’s and the West Bank’s Christian communities was that they feel better protected by the Palestinian Authority than by Israel’s Netanyahu administration.
It is a preference that understandably bewilders those in European countries and particularly in the United States where revulsion at antisemitism and insecurity about Middle Eastern immigration adjudges Islamist fundamentalism a far greater threat to Western societies than Orthodox Judaism. But the outlook is different in the historic Holy Lands where Christians are overwhelmingly Palestinian. Compared to within Israel, church influence is far more impactful in predominantly Muslim East Jerusalem and West Bank. There, Christian organisations are the third largest employer. Around 40 percent of cancer treatments in the West Bank are carried out by one Lutheran charity alone, the Augusta Victoria Hospital. What’s more, the academically superior Christian-denomination schools (the most celebrated dating back to Ottoman times) offer the clearest route for the territory’s Christian and Muslim children alike to learn together and gain qualifications. Coexistence is a necessary precondition of daily life.
The bishop who represents the greatest number of the region’s Christians is the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem. His Beatitude Theophilos III is the current incumbent in a role that dates directly back to St Juvenal in AD 451 and, before that, to the earliest first century bishop — Jesus’s follower and relation, James the Just.
Theophilos contends that “our presence here is a daily miracle. We don’t have a government. We don’t have an army” and yet “we play a role in keeping Jerusalem open”. He laments that “certain people want Jerusalem for their own. But that doesn’t work. Jerusalem is for everyone”. Collectively, the Christian churches’ enduring presence is a necessary factor in ensuring Jerusalem at least tries to be an “example of co-existence and mutual respect.”
In particular, “our mission,” Theophilos explains, “is how to maintain and keep accessible the Holy places. They are not just archaeological sites”. It is a telling distinction because excavating land to unearth ancient artefacts is one means of asserting control over contested land.
Christians feel better protected by the Palestinian Authority than by Israel’s Netanyahu administration.
For many Israelis an insurmountable problem created by any form of “two state solution” would be the acceptance of East Jerusalem (where almost a quarter of a million Jews now live) as irrevocably Palestinian. The pincer-shaped encroachment by settler groups is one way of diminishing that prospect. In December last year, 54,000 ft2 of land in Silwan, directly south-east of Jerusalem’s Old City, was duly occupied by Jewish settlers. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate condemned the move as a “clear encroachment” of its own property, claiming “this radical group has no right or judicial backing in their favour to allow them to enter or occupy the land”.
Despite a notably non-transparent planning process, last year the Supreme Court upheld the Israeli government’s approval for a cable car to be constructed to take tourists into the Old City. Aside from being a crass eyesore wholly insensitive to its historic setting, the project — which involves driving vast pylons into supposedly protected sites — is widely perceived as having a dual tourist and strategic function. “I wonder if the true aim of the cable car is not to facilitate access to the Western Wall but rather to bring crowds to Elad’s disproportionate Kedem tourst centre” through which it passes, mused one of the scheme’s leading critics, the architect David Cassuto.
Elad is the Ir David Foundation, a charity which supports cultural and archaeological projects designed to highlight Jerusalem’s heritage as the Jewish “City of David”. Generously funded by among others the Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, Elad’s educational and development projects are supported by settler groups insistent that where Jews lived two Millenia ago is legitimately land for Jewish resettlement again. Despite spanning Palestinian areas to better connect Jewish settlements and running heritage sites and Jewish music festivals on occupied land, Elad’s vice chairman has nevertheless refuted suggestions it was closely involved “in the fine details” of the cable car project. But Elad’s role in facilitating the purchase of properties in Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem for Jewish settlers, where successful, has the consequence of changing the demography of strategically important neighbourhoods in Israel’s favour.
Particularly concerning for Christians is the plan to extend the existing Jerusalem Walls National Park to include within its expanded boundaries key sites of Christian pilgrimage on the Mount of Olives, a sacred place to all three religions and central to the life of Jesus and from where the Bible attests he ascended into Heaven. Under the plan, Elad would have operational control of the National Park. This would give the pro-Jewish settler organisation the potential to restrict or divert entry, to inspect Christian sites and drive land reuse.
A pro-Jewish settler organisation would effectively control access to some of Christianity’s holiest sites
The existing proposals involve an Elad-run visitor centre and the construction of a new Jewish pilgrimage route that cuts across Christian land and through an orphanage. “Under the guise of protecting green spaces” protests an open letter sent jointly by the Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the “apparent sole purpose is to confiscate and nationalise one of the holiest sites for Christianity”. In reality, the churches would still legally own their properties. But Elad would effectively control access to them. None of the churches say that they have yet been consulted on the scheme, which having once been set aside, is now rescheduled for planning approval later this year.
It is but one of many threats that add to the vexation of Christians in their Holy Land. Attacks have become more numerous in recent months. Clergy wearing their vestments report an increase in the verbal abuse they encounter walking through Jerusalem. Indeed, only last week one Greek Orthodox priest reported that he had been mocked and spat on by seemingly invulnerable youths whilst on his way to a small dinner party I attended in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Such abuse is symptomatic of an unabashed contempt for the Christian presence, leading the Greek Orthodox Church to state that “terrorist attacks, by radical Israeli groups, targeting churches, cemeteries, and Christian properties … have become almost a daily occurrence that evidently increases in intensity during Christian holidays”.
In January, in what the British Consulate in Jerusalem called “the latest in a string of attacks against Christians and their property in and around the Old City”, the Anglican and Lutheran cemetery on Mount Zion was desecrated: more than thirty crosses and headstones were smashed including that of Samuel Goblat, the Swiss-born Anglican who was bishop of Jerusalem from 1846 to 1879. The vandals, wearing kippahs and tzitzit, were caught on CCTV.
In March, assailants — described by onlookers as one wearing a yarmulke and the other tzitzit — stormed into the church at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary. Wielding an iron bar, the lead attacker struck a priest on the forehead and was restrained by worshipers before he could reach Archbishop Joachim who was leading the service. The assailant had to be pinned down by the congregation for half an hour — the time it took the Israeli police to arrive and make an arrest. There is incredulity among Jerusalem’s church leaders that such a dilatory police response would have resulted if, for example, a violent Islamist stormed one of the city’s synagogues.
It is important to make clear that Israel’s government condemns these and other anti-Christian attacks and arrests have been made. However, this has not assuaged Christians who believe the political climate fostered by extreme right wingers and settler interests emboldens hotheads to take matters into their own hands. “There is always a connection between what happens at the top and what happens on the ground” thinks the Franciscan priest, Father Francesco Patton, who is Custos of the Holy Land: “we feel our statements are useless. If I can quote Bob Dylan, our statements are like something blowing in the wind.”
“The radicals are the settlers with their Messianic syndrome” as how the Patriarch, Theophilos, sees it. They are often “fifteen or sixteen-year-olds who believe they are protected by their masters”. It has become customary for those detained for anti-Christian violence to be adjudged mentally ill. Perhaps they are. But whilst at pains to point out that he seeks repentance not vengeance since “I don’t want to generalise, to raise hate, to encourage antisemitism at a time when it is rising”, Father Francesco Patton nevertheless asks, “do attackers of other religions get the same label?”
In its two Millenia of bearing witness, the Christian presence in the Holy Land has faced far greater threats than this. But nobody imagines it still enjoys the decisive support of temporal powers that were once its guardians. Christians are no longer sufficiently numerous to weigh heavily in the region’s balancing acts. Spiritual needs translate into practical achievements in continuing to offer Palestinians of whatever faith a level of healthcare and education to which they would not otherwise have a hope. But the toll on Christians’ security and sense of equanimity is heavy. Worshipers now have to be protected by cameras and iron gates. As Father Francesco Patton concedes, “this is not the Franciscan tradition of welcome”. Yet what is the alternative?
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