Meeting Biden, J’lem Christian leader describes ‘attacks by Israeli radical groups’

Greek patriarch of Jerusalem tells US leader there is an ‘unprecedented’ effort to drive Christians out of the holy city, through vandalism and property seizures

Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox patriarch Theophilos III leads the Christmas Midnight Mass for the Greek Orthodox at the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem, on January 7, 2018. (Musa Al Shaer/AFP)
Jerusalem's Greek Orthodox patriarch Theophilos III leads the Christmas Midnight Mass for the Greek Orthodox at the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem, on January 7, 2018. (Musa Al Shaer/AFP)

Meeting US President Joe Biden at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem on Friday, a top Jerusalem Christian leader spoke out against what he called “unprecedented attacks by Israeli radical groups” meant to repel Christians from the holy city.

In a statement, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Patriarch Theophilos III said he told the US leader that such radicals act “without accountability” and that their actions include attacks on churches and efforts to seize properties.

He stressed “the challenges facing Christians and the extent to which things have reached,” including attacks on churches, insults against clergy, attempts to block the faithful from places of worship and attempts to seize Christian real estate.

Christian leaders have increasingly complained that their communities are under threat of being driven from the region by extremist Israeli radical groups.

In June, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision not to block the transfer of rights to three buildings in Jerusalem’s Old City to Ateret Cohanim, exhausting all recourse for the Greek Orthodox church after a drawn-out legal battle.

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.

US President Joe Biden arrives at the Church of the Nativity in the Biblical city of Bethlehem in the West Bank on July 15, 2022. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

The decision dealt a final blow to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate’s efforts to fight a 2004 sale of leases for two hotels near the Jaffa Gate and a third property in the Christian Quarter.

Last December 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 by the UK’s Daily Telegraph that “our presence is precarious and our future is at risk.”

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.

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.”

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 captured East Jerusalem from its Jordanian occupiers 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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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