Recent news that Christians (including clergy and foreign diplomats) were attacked by Israeli police as they attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the day before Orthodox Easter stands as a stark reminder of the difficulties Christians face in the Holy Land.
Israel is a land which three of the world’s major faiths claim as holy—no city more so than Jerusalem. Jewish believers hold the city sacred as the place where the Second Temple once stood, and indeed revere the Western Wall (a section of the original outer wall of the Temple grounds, dating from the first century A.D.) as one of the holiest sites in Judaism. Muslims have in Jerusalem the Dome of the Rock, a massive, golden mosque built on the ruins of the Second Temple. It commemorates the place where they believe Muhammad traveled with the angel Gabriel before ascending to heaven to meet with the prophets. Christians, of course, recognize Jerusalem as the place where Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. It is also the place of Jesus’ triumphant resurrection, the place where Christ rose bodily from the dead—the place of the empty tomb.
Given these competing faiths, it is inevitable that conflict should arise. In fact, a few months ago when I traveled to Israel with the Canadian Church Press, I visited the Western Wall only to learn the area had been the scene of violence earlier that morning. The Jerusalem Post reports that a number of Muslims gathered for afternoon prayer at the Temple Mount March 8 began throwing rocks at Israeli officers on the bridge which leads to the Western Wall plaza. The event ended with Israeli police entering the Muslim area, using stun grenades to disperse the rioters who were throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. When we arrived at the nearby Western Wall later in the day, a very large number of police officers were still on site.
That is often the way the rest of the world views disagreement in the Holy Land: as conflict between Jews and Muslims. Less often remembered are the Christians of Israel and Palestine. That’s perhaps not surprising, given that Christians make up such a small percentage of both countries. Just 152,000 Christians are permanent residents of Israel, about 2.1 percent of the entire population. In Palestine, 8 percent of the West Bank‘s total population and 0.7 percent of the Gaza Strip‘s are Christian—approximately 210,000 and 12,000 people respectively, based on current population figures.
In both Israel and Palestine, the vast majority of these Christians are ethnic Arabs. That’s a situation unlikely to change anytime soon; Palestine has no immigration to speak of, and Israel restricts immigration solely to converts to Judaism or descendants of Jews (though their spouses, of whatever nationality and religion, are welcome). Other minority Christian populations exist (including Messianic Jews and foreign-born spouses of Jews), but they are significantly outnumbered by Arab Christians. In Israel, for example, 80 percent of all Christians are Arab born.
As a result of their Arab ethnicity, many Christians in the Holy Land find themselves more closely aligned with Muslim Palestinians than Jewish Israelis. The grievances of Muslim Palestinians are therefore often shared by Christian Palestinians.
One major source of disagreement is the Israeli West Bank barrier. The wall effectively separates Palestinian territory from Israeli territory, making travel between the two difficult at best. Palestinians view the walls as encroaching on their territory, increasingly isolating them from their Arab brethren on the other sides of the walls. A related source of contention is the question of Israeli settlements within West Bank borders. The CIA’s World Factbook notes that, as of 2011, more than 300,000 Israeli settlers lived in the West Bank, with just under 200,000 settlers also living in East Jerusalem. Palestinians (including Palestinian Christians) tend to see this as encroachment on their territory and as an attempt to dilute Palestinian culture and identity in favour of Israeli.
On the other side, Israelis fear ceding greater authority to Palestine, as a number of prominent Palestinian leaders (especially in Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip) have repeatedly refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist and repeatedly vowed to destroy Israel. Israelis argue walls circling Palestinian areas are necessary as a terrorism deterrent, noting that Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel have dropped significantly since construction began.
While visiting holy sites in Bethlehem, members of The Canadian Church Press met for a brief lunch with a Palestinian pastor. That pastor expressed frustration over projects like the walls which, in his estimation, have made life increasingly difficult for Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians. He further noted his concern that such projects are fueling growing anti-Israeli sentiment among the Palestinian people and undermining peace efforts. And while he expressed his desire that a solution to current enmity between Israelis and Palestinians would one day be found, he also stated his belief that such a solution is some generations away.
Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa (Major Superior of Franciscans in the Middle East, and Custos of all Catholic sites in the Holy Land) likewise noted the difficulties facing Christians in the Holy Land when members of The Canadian Church Press met with him in the Old City of Jerusalem. He expressed concern that Arab Christians are suffering in both Israel and Palestine because of their minority status.
Rev. Pizzaballa drew headlines in the Fall of 2012 when he and other Christian leaders signed a letter calling on Israel to do more to defend Christians from violence, as well as to do more to prevent anti-Christian sentiments from being taught in Ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools. “What kind of ‘teaching of contempt’ for Christians is being communicated in their schools and in their homes?” the authors write. “The time has come for the authorities to put an end to this senseless violence and to ensure a ‘teaching of respect’ in schools for all those who call this land home.”
The letter was precipitated by an attack on a Trappist monastery in Latroun; the monastery door was set on fire, and slurs written in Hebrew were painted on the walls calling Jesus Christ “a monkey” and calling for “death to Christians.” Earlier in 2012, an Israeli legislator tore up the New Testament while in the Knesset, the country’s parliament, and another called for Bibles to be burned. Neither faced any disciplinary action. “Such a serious thing occurs and no one does anything,” Rev. Pizzaballa lamented in an interview with The Haaretz. “In practice, it negates our existence here.”
Of course, it is not only extremist Jews who make life hard for minority Christians. Only a week before the monastery at Latroun was attacked, a Christian residence at the Mount of Olives was stormed by dozens of young extremist Muslims crying “Allahu akhbar!” and “Jihad!” The attackers caused serious property damage and injured a number of the Christian residents by throwing rocks. A few days later, Rev. Pizzaballa and other leaders visited the residents, condemning the attack and calling for the prevention of future violence.
In a 2005 interview, Rev. Pizzaballa summed up succinctly the situation faced by Christians as a result of extremist Muslim groups. “Almost every day,” he said in a 2005 interview, “I repeat, almost every day, our communities are harassed by the Islamic extremists.” The remarks were prompted by the honour killing near Ramallah of a woman of Muslim descent who became pregnant by a Christian man. Muslim crowds also burned a number of Christian homes and destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary. In his remarks then, Rev. Pizzaballa criticized Palestinian authorities for doing “little or nothing to punish those responsible” for anti-Christian crimes which take place frequently at the hands of extremist Muslims.
The situation for Christians has not improved, as the recent attack at Orthodox Easter indicates. In response, the leaders of all Christian churches in the Holy Land banded together to issue a statement condemning the actions of the Israeli police. “It is not acceptable that under pretext of security and order, our clergy and people are indiscriminately and brutally beaten, and prevented from entering their churches, monasteries, and convents,” they wrote.
“We deplore that every year, the police measures are becoming tougher, and we expect that these accidents will not be repeated,” they continued. “The heads of churches in Jerusalem condemn all of these measures and violations of Christians’ rights to worship in their churches and Holy Sites.”
Christian visitors to the Holy Land have little reason to fear for their own safety; their security is well-established. But the situation for indigenous Christians is another matter. How to reverse anti-Christian sentiments among extremist groups in both Israel and Palestine is not clear; what is clear is that the Christians of the Holy Land need our prayers. They also need us to speak for them, to petition Israel and Palestine to ensure the safety and freedom of Christians within their borders.