‘Death to Christians’: Violence steps up under new Israeli gov’t

Christian leaders in Jerusalem say never have Israeli attackers felt more emboldened than under the far-right ruling coalition.

Priests in white on the grass
Hostility by fundamentalist Jews towards Jerusalem’s Christian community is not new [File: Lucien Lung/Al Jazeera]

Jerusalem – Nothing about the attack or what happened since surprised Miran Krikorian. The Armenian owner of Taboon and Wine Bar in the Old City of Jerusalem was not surprised to receive a call the night of January 26 that a mob of Israeli settlers was attacking his bar in the Christian Quarter and shouting “Death to Arabs … Death to Christians.”

It didn’t surprise him how little effort the police made to catch the perpetrators; after some press about the attack and a lack of arrests, police told him two months later they detained three of the suspects among the mob. But they also asked for his surveillance video, despite the videos being already online and surveillance cameras omnipresent in the Old City.

“You have cameras over here that can show the underwear that someone is wearing, so how come you’re asking for my footage two months later?” asked Krikorian.

It was easy for him to identify many of the perpetrators himself – they went online and gave his restaurant a 1-star review minutes after the attack – but when he went to the police station that night, the officer there scolded him: “Don’t bother me too much.”

Gabi in blue jeans and a blue shirt leans on a table
Restaurant owner Gabi Hani, owner of Versavee, in Jerusalem on April 5, 2023 [Lucien Lung/Al Jazeera]

A couple of days later, Armenians leaving a memorial service in the Armenian Quarter say they were attacked by Israeli settlers carrying sticks. An Armenian was pepper-sprayed as settlers scaled the walls of the Armenian convent, trying to take down its flag, which had a cross on it. When Armenians chased them away, the settlers began shouting: “Terrorist attack,” prompting nearby border police to draw their guns on the Armenians, beating and detaining one of them.

“Instead of [the soldiers] calming or condemning [the settlers], I was looking into the eyes of the soldier and telling him to calm down,” one of the attacked Armenian youth told Al Jazeera.

Hostility by fundamentalist Jews towards Jerusalem’s Christian community is not new, and it is not just Armenian Christians who suffer from it. Priests of all denominations describe being spat at for years. Since 2005, Christian celebrations around Holy Week, particularly Holy Fire Saturday, have brought military barricades and harsh treatment from soldiers and settlers alike, with the number of worshippers allowed inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre drastically limited, from as many as 11,000 historically during the Holy Fire ceremony to now 1,800 since last year, with authorities citing safety concerns.

But since Israel’s new government – the most right wing and religious in its history – came to power, incidents against Christians in Jerusalem have reportedly become more violent and common. At the beginning of the year, 30 Christian graves at the Protestant Mount Zion Cemetery were desecrated. In the Armenian Quarter, vandals spray-painted “Death to Arabs, Christians and Armenians,” on the walls.

Crowds celebrating Palm Sunday in Jerusalem
Crowds celebrating Palm Sunday in Jerusalem on April 2, 2023 [Lucien Lung/Al Jazeera]

At the Church of the Flagellation, someone attacked a statue of Jesus with a hammer. Last month, an Israeli came to the Church of Gethsemane during Sunday religious services and tried to attack the priest with an iron bar. Being spat and shouted at by Israelis has become, for some Christians, “a daily occurrence”.

Struggling with ‘Messianic syndrome’

Most of the time, victims of these incidents say little is done by police to catch or punish attackers.

“My fear is that these perpetrators are known, but they enjoy impunity,” said Munib Younan, bishop emeritus of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. “That’s the reason they are doing this.”

Church and community leaders note that police do little to investigate, and dismiss or minimise the religious and ideological motivations behind these attacks, typically saying the perpetrators suffer from mental illness.

“The man who tried to [throw] tomatoes in our Church of Gethsemane in 2020, it was the same – he was taken for a while, and then he was declared mentally ill. So, what can we do?” remarked Friar Francesco Patton, custodian of the Holy Land.

Custos Francesco Patton
Custos Francesco Patton, Custody of the Holy Land, Jerusalem, on March 31, 2023 [Lucien Lung/Al Jazeera]

Forced to take matters into his own hands, Patton, who is tasked with protecting some 80 sites in Jerusalem, says the Franciscans have reluctantly set up cameras in all corners of their holy sites, which are becoming more closed off from the public due to the persistent attacks.

“This is not the Franciscan spirituality … of welcoming,” he said. “But we have to take care of the [holy] places and people who come to pray and worship.”

Ideologically, the primary source for this targeting of Christians and their holy sites comes from the education of certain ultra-religious Jewish groups, according to community and church leaders. Most attacks come from a small minority of teenage yeshiva students, they say.

“Their mind is obsessed with the ‘Messianic syndrome’. They want to take over the whole land,” said Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem. “When you see young people, 15 or 16 years old, and they do all sorts of things and they’re not afraid, someone is behind it.”

The targeting of Christian symbols – especially the cross, with harassers often calling Christians “pagans” or “idol worshippers” – isn’t new either, but never have the attackers felt more emboldened than under the new government. After a recent spitting incident, an argument ensued, and the settler flashed his gun at the Christians. As a friend of theirs put it, the message was clear: “I can do anything I want and claim self-defence.”

“The minister of national security is a lawyer who used to defend extremist Jews attacking Christian and other sites,” said one Armenian youth who says they were attacked in January, referring to Itamar Ben-Gvir. “What do you expect when the highest-ranking official in the equation is the most extremist?”

Bishop Shomali standing in his office
Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem on April 5, 2023 [Lucien Lung/Al Jazeera]

Making politics religious, and religion political

All of this is happening “in the grips of the most serious crisis between Israel and the churches since 1948”, said Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem lawyer intimately involved in discussions with state and institutional delegations. “Nobody is talking to the churches.”

This comes as the Israeli government continues to seek to transform Christian sites at the Mount of Olives into a national park — which church officials say will strip their rights as owners of these sites and hand them over to settler interests.

Church statements are growing more direct, at times fiercely critical of the government. “What we call the status quo, the balance between the different [communities] … now is not any more respected,” declared Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s Christian population has been threatened for years – it is currently about 10,000, or just over one percent of the city’s population, compared with a quarter of the population a century ago. Many have left, seeking a more secure future elsewhere as the empowerment of far-right religious figures such as Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich only tears Jerusalem apart and marginalises Christians further.

Church leaders describe a situation where religious issues are becoming more politicised, while political issues are driven more intensely by religious zealotry. “These people want to change the political conflict in Jerusalem into a religious one where nobody is a winner except extremists,” said Bishop Younan of the Lutheran Church.

closeup of smiling Latin Patriarch Pizzaballa
Latin Patriarch Pizzaballa in Jerusalem on March 31, 2023 [Lucien Lung/Al Jazeera]

“Religion should forgive, should invite to peace, to concord, to reconciliation, to forgiveness,” added Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate. “But when religion becomes ideology, this is what happens: hatred.”

‘A little bit lost’

Christians have been emigrating from the Holy Land for economic and security reasons for decades. After big waves of emigration caused by the 1948 Nakba and the 1967 war, there has been a steady trickle of Christians leaving. Efforts within the community to preserve the Christian presence in Jerusalem, including careful ownership of properties by churches and others, have helped the Christian population in Jerusalem stabilise somewhat.

But residents already dealing with high costs of living ask themselves if they should endure the verbal and physical assaults to maintain the Christian presence, or emigrate.

“We are the weakest one, so maybe it’s a way of accelerating the emigration to leave the country,” said Krikorian, the bar owner, who personally “love[s]” living in the Old City. “It’s working. Honestly speaking, it’s working.”

Community mobilisation has been difficult with what can be a fragmented community divided among 13 churches. Gabi Hani, 53, a Palestinian Christian Jerusalemite who owns Versavee Restaurant near Jaffa Gate in the Old City, commends the increased visibility and statements of church leaders recently but believes a clear vision is still lacking.

“I think we are a bit lost,” said Hani. “We don’t have a single leader to provide a kind of unified strategy. But people defend themselves, and just to stay here is already the winning strategy.”

Palestinian and Armenian Christians feel ignored by the world, and for church officials engaging in the diplomatic arena, the response often rings hollow. “[Foreign countries] are shy,” said Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate. “Americans are the strongest because there is a special relationship between Israel and the United States. But Europe is shy – they talk, but without exerting any pressure.”

The Armenian scouts march through the old city
The Armenian scouts march through the Old City of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, April 2, 2023. Scout leader Hagop Djernazian appears on the left [Lucien Lung/Al Jazeera]

Finding someone to take the lead on protecting Christians can be tricky. Speak to community members, and they will call for churches or foreign states tasked with protecting Christian sites – like Belgium, France, Italy, Jordan, and Spain – to take more action. Speak to church leaders, and they say there is little they can do beyond making statements and communicating their deepening concerns to foreign states. Ask diplomats, and they say they are following the lead of church officials – a circle of finger-pointing responsibility that results in little action.

“There’s more consciousness of the issues,” said one diplomat in Jerusalem. “Some key people have played a role there on the church side, but it hasn’t been effective. Although, what diplomatic action here has been effective?”

Other issues afflicting Jerusalem and the region at the moment – including violence at Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Israeli government’s proposed judicial amendments – are higher priorities for diplomatic missions. However, according to Daniel Seiderman, threats against church property are one of the few areas where there can be pushback in the US, even from Republicans against Israel’s efforts to Judaise Jerusalem.

Patriarch Theophilos in his ceremonial garb
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III in Jerusalem on March 31, 2023 [Lucien Lung/Al Jazeera]

But those involved in diplomatic discussions say violence against Christians is unlikely to be the animating force for foreign missions.

‘People are coming together’

Christians in Jerusalem are starting to increase engagement within and between communities. Following the violent incidents towards the Armenian community – victims of a disproportionate number of attacks because their quarter is adjacent to the Jewish Quarter – they started a WhatsApp group to alert each other of threats or incidents.

Hagop Djernazian, 23, leads the Armenian Scouts. He has been engaging Scout groups across denominations, organising joint camps for the first time. As a show of solidarity, he brought the Orthodox Armenian Scouts to last week’s Catholic Palm Sunday. Ten Scout groups joined the procession, double the participation from last year.

“The new generation is growing up with the idea that Christians must cooperate with each other in the city to keep the Christian presence,” said Dzernian. “If we keep saying that we will work alone, we will lose in the end.”

In the wider context of government efforts to Judaise Jerusalem, a solidarity of “others” is likewise reinforced. “Christians, Muslims, Arabs, Armenians – they include us in one package,” said Dzernian.

Many community members and leaders like Latin Patriarch Pizzaballa expect the violence to continue or worsen in the weeks ahead. Some Christians, inevitably, will leave. But through the pressure, a collective identity is strengthening – both as part of the longstanding “mosaic” of Jerusalem’s multiethnic, multireligious character, and as Christians in the Holy Land.

“Occupation makes people very cold, very separate. ‘I am [Syriac], I am Catholic, I am Orthodox, I am Evangelist’,” remarked Hani the restaurant owner. “But with the threats, the violence, the vandalism, now the people are coming together. The churches are waking up. We were blind for 50 years, but no more.”

Source: Al Jazeera