'These people feel they are protected'

Latin patriarch says new government has made life worse for Holy Land Christians

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Catholic cleric in the region, says Jewish extremists are emboldened by having representatives in power, leading to rise in attacks on Christians

File: Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa leads the Easter Sunday Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead, in the Old City of Jerusalem, April 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
File: Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa leads the Easter Sunday Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead, in the Old City of Jerusalem, April 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Holy Land has warned in an interview that the rise of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government has made life worse for Christians in the birthplace of Christianity.

The influential Vatican-appointed Latin patriarch, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, told The Associated Press that the region’s 2,000-year-old Christian community has come under increasing attack, with the most right-wing government in Israel’s history emboldening extremists who have harassed clergy and vandalized religious property at a quickening pace.

The uptick in anti-Christian incidents also comes as right-wing groups, galvanized by their allies in government, appear to have seized the moment to expand efforts to establish Jewish enclaves in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

“The frequency of these attacks, the aggressions, has become something new,” Pizzaballa said during Easter week from his office, tucked in the limestone passageways of the Old City’s Christian Quarter. “These people feel they are protected… that the cultural and political atmosphere now can justify, or tolerate, actions against Christians.”

Pizzaballa’s concerns appear to undercut Israel’s stated commitment to freedom of worship, enshrined in the declaration that marked its founding 75 years ago. The Israeli government stressed it prioritizes religious freedom and relations with the churches, which have powerful links abroad.

“Israel’s commitment to freedom of religion has been important to us forever,” said Tania Berg-Rafaeli, the director of the world religions department at the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “It’s the case for all religions and all minorities that have free access to holy sites.”

Priests participate in the Easter Sunday Mass led by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa, at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Sunday, April 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

But Christians say they feel authorities don’t protect their sites from targeted attacks. And tensions have surged after Israeli police clashed with Palestinians in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the Temple Mount set off outrage among Muslims, and a regional confrontation last week.

For Christians, Jerusalem is where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. For Jews, it’s the ancient capital, home to two biblical Jewish temples. For Muslims, it’s where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Difficulties for minority Christians are nothing new in the teeming Old City, a crucible of tension that the Israeli government annexed in 1967. Many Christians feel squeezed between Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians.

But now Netanyahu’s far-right government includes settler leaders in key roles — such as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who holds criminal convictions from 2007 for incitement of anti-Arab racism and support for a Jewish militant group.

MKs Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben Gvir and MKs from the Religious Zionism party visit the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem’s Old City, October 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Their influence has empowered Israelis seeking to entrench Jewish control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, alarming church leaders who see such efforts — including government plans to create a national park on the Mount of Olives — as a threat to the Christian presence in the holy city. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state.

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

The roughly 15,000 Christians in Jerusalem today, the majority of them Palestinians, were once 27,000 — before hardships that followed the 1967 Six Day War spurred many in the traditionally prosperous group to emigrate.

Now, 2023 is shaping up to be the worst year for Christians in a decade, according to Yusef Daher from the Inter-Church Center, a group that coordinates between the denominations.

Physical assaults and harassment of clergy often go unreported, the center said. It 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. Church leaders blame Israeli extremists for most of the incidents, and say they fear an even greater surge.

“This escalation will bring more and more violence,” Pizzaballa said. “It will create a situation that will be very difficult to correct.”

In March, a pair of Israelis burst into the basilica beside the Garden of Gethsemane, where the Virgin Mary is said to have been buried. They pounced on a priest with a metal rod before being arrested.

In February, a religious American Jew yanked a 10-foot rendering of Christ from its pedestal and smashed it onto the floor, striking its face with a hammer a dozen times at the Church of the Flagellation on the Via Dolorosa, along which it’s believed Jesus hauled his cross toward his crucifixion. “No idols in the holy city of Jerusalem!” he yelled.

A toppled statue in the Church of the Flagellation, in the Old City of Jerusalem, February 2, 2023. (Custody of the Holy Land)

Armenians found hateful graffiti on the walls of their convent. Priests of all denominations say they’ve been stalked, spat on and beaten during their walks to church. In January, religious Jews knocked over and vandalized 30 graves marked with stone crosses at a historic Christian cemetery in the city. Two teenagers were arrested and charged with causing damage and insulting religion.

But Christians allege that Israeli police haven’t taken most attacks seriously. In one case, 25-year-old George Kahkejian said he was the one beaten, arrested and detained for 17 hours after a mob of Jewish settlers scaled his Armenian Christian convent to tear down its flag earlier this year. The police had no immediate comment.

“We see that most incidents in our quarter have gone unpunished,” complained Father Aghan Gogchian, chancellor of the Armenian Patriarchate. He expressed disappointment with how authorities frequently insist cases of desecration and harassment hinge not on religious hatred but on mental illness.

Hosam Naoum, a Palestinian Anglican bishop, touches a damaged grave where vandals desecrated dozens of graves at the historic Protestant Cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion in Jerusalem, January 4, 2023. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

Israeli police said they have “thoroughly investigated (incidents) regardless of background or religion” and made “speedy arrests.” The Jerusalem municipality is boosting security at upcoming Orthodox Easter processions and creating a new police department to handle religiously motivated threats, said Jerusalem deputy mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum.

Most top Israeli officials have stayed quiet on the vandalism, while government moves — including the introduction of a law criminalizing Christian proselytizing and the promotion of plans to turn the Mount of Olives into a national park — have stoked outrage in the Holy Land and beyond.

Netanyahu vowed to block the bill from moving forward, following pressure from outraged evangelical Christians in the United States. Among the strongest backers of Israel, evangelicals view a Jewish state as the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy.

Meanwhile, Jerusalem officials confirmed that they’re pressing on with the contentious zoning plan for the Mount of Olives — a holy pilgrimage site with some dozen historic churches. Christian leaders fear the park could stem their growth and encroach on their lands.

The Israeli National Parks Authority promised buy-in from churches and said it hopes the park will “preserve valuable areas as open areas.”

Pizzaballa pushed back. “It’s a kind of confiscation,” he said.

Simmering tensions in the community came to a head over Orthodox Easter rituals as Israeli police announced strict quotas on the thousands of pilgrims seeking to attend the rite of the “Holy Fire” at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

File: Christian pilgrims hold candles as they gather during the ceremony of the Holy Fire at Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Saturday, April 23, 2022 (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov, File)

Citing safety concerns over lit torches being thrust through massive crowds in the church, authorities capped Saturday’s ceremony at 1,800 people. Priests who saw police open gates wide for Jews celebrating Passover, which coincided this year with Easter, alleged religious discrimination on Wednesday.

In response, police said Thursday that the limitation was not their initiative. The force called the cap a “necessary safety requirement” set by a safety engineer to prevent a potentially deadly stampede resembling the crush that happened several years ago during a Jewish pilgrimage event at Mount Meron, where 45 people died.

“The Israel Police will enforce the safety engineer’s instructions and expects cooperation from church leaders and organizers,” a statement from police said.

These days, Bishop Sani Ibrahim Azar of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem said he struggles for answers when his congregants ask why they should even bear the bitter price of living in the Holy Land.

“There are things that make us worry about our very existence,” he said. “But without hope, more and more of us will leave.”

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