Illustrative: A priest checks the damage after a man poured out flammable liquid inside the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane, in East Jerusalem, on December 4, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Christian leaders in the Holy Land have warned that their communities are under threat of being driven from the region by extremist Israeli radical groups, and called for dialogue on preserving their presence.
Fr. Francesco Patton, the Catholic Church’s Custos of the Holy Land and guardian of the Christian holy places in the Holy Land, wrote in an opinion piece published Saturday by the UK’s Daily Telegraph that “our presence is precarious and our future is at risk.”
Last week, the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem issued a joint statement similarly warning of the danger posed by radical groups they said are aiming at “diminishing the Christian presence.”
Patton wrote that in recent years, the lives of many Christians have been made “unbearable by radical local groups with extremist ideologies.”
“It seems that their aim is to free the Old City of Jerusalem from its Christian presence, even the Christian quarter,” he said.
Holy sites, including churches, have been desecrated and vandalized, while offenses have been committed against priests, monks and worshipers, Patton charged.
“These radical groups do not represent the government or the people of Israel. But as with any extremist faction, a radical minority can too easily burden the lives of many, especially if their activities go unchecked and their crimes are unpunished.”
Fr. Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, Guardian of the Christian Holy Places in the Holy Land on behalf of the Catholic Church (Courtesy)
Patton wrote that whereas the Christians were once 20 percent of Jerusalem’s population, today they are less than 2%. He issued an appeal to the world for support “so that we can continue to preserve the rich diversity of this Holy Land.”
More warnings came from Britain’s Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in a joint article written with the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem, Hosam Naoum, published in the UK’s Sunday Times. They said the article was prompted by the statement last week from the Jerusalem churches, which Welby, in a tweet, called “an unprecedented statement from the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem about the future of Christians in the Holy Land.
In their article, Welby and Naoum wrote that there is a “concerted attempt to intimidate and drive” away Christians.
The archbishops said that the increase in Israeli settler communities, coupled by the restrictions on movement posed by the security barrier Israel built to stymie terror attacks from the West Bank, had “deepened the isolation of Christian villages.”
As a result, the two wrote, there is “a steady stream of Palestinian Christians leaving the Holy Land to seek lives and livelihoods elsewhere.”
President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews Marie van der Zyl. (Courtesy)
The archbishops’ article drew a protest from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which focused on some of the assertions they made on what is causing the waning of Christian presence in Israel.
Board president Marie van der Zyl wrote a letter to Welby in which she expressed “great regret” at his published remarks and called for a meeting to discuss “deeply troubling” aspects of his article, the Jewish Chronicle reported.
While noting that attacks on the Christian community are unacceptable, van der Zyl questioned the causes of a decline in the Christian community, stressing that there are “more complex reasons than those raised in the article, which appeared to attribute this decline to Jewish settlers and the barrier built to halt the wave of terror attacks of the Second Intifada.”
Last week’s statement, issued by the Diocese of Jerusalem on behalf of the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem, warned of the “current threat to the Christian presence in the Holy Land.”
While acknowledging “with gratitude the declared commitment of the Israeli government to uphold a safe and secure home for Christians in the Holy Land,” the statement went on to lament that “radical groups” are acquiring properties in the Christian Quarter “with the aim of diminishing the Christian presence.”
Such groups, the statement said, are “often using underhanded dealings and intimidation tactics to evict residents from their home,” decreasing the Christian presence and disrupting pilgrimage routes between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
The statement noted the benefits that Christian pilgrims bring to Israel, citing a University of Birmingham report that it brings $3 billion to the economy.
Church leaders requested “urgent dialogue” with authorities of “Israel, Palestine and Jordan,” all of whom, they said, have declared their commitment to protecting religious freedom.
They said the talks should focus on the “challenges presented by radical groups” in Jerusalem and on the creation of a “special Christian cultural and heritage zone to safeguard the integrity of the Christian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem.”
Welby tweeted the “unprecedented statement” and urged his followers to “read their heart-cry.”
Burnt wooden crosses and a fire extinguisher, on May 26, 2014, after arsonists set fire to a Catholic church at a contested site in Jerusalem, during a visit by Pope Francis. (AFP / Thomas Coe)
The Vatican News reported Wednesday that Christian organizations across the world responded to the statement with messages of support.
The World Council of Churches, representing 349 churches, gave its backing, with acting general secretary Rev. Ioan Sauca saying in a statement that Christians in the Holy Land should be “respected and valued as part of both the heritage and future of the region.”
Churches for Middle East Peace, a US-based advocacy group, also issued a statement stressing the importance of Christian communities in the Holy Land, Vatican News reported.
Though neither Patton nor the Church leaders statement mentioned it by name, Ateret Cohanim is a religious-Zionist organization that works to populate the Old City and other East Jerusalem neighborhoods with Jewish residents by purchasing properties from non-Jewish owners.
Separately, extremist Jewish activists have for years carried out vandalism against Christian sites in Jerusalem and other areas of Israel, including hate graffiti and arson. The extremists also target Palestinians.
Israel seized East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and later extended sovereignty over it, in a move never recognized by the international community. It now considers the entirety of Jerusalem its capital, citing the Jewish historical and biblical connection there.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.