The head of the Roman Catholic church in the Holy Land has warned in an interview that Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government has made life worse for Christians in the birthplace of Christianity.
The Vatican-appointed Latin Patriarch, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, said that the region’s 2,000-year-old Christian community has come under increasing attack, with the most rightwing government in Israel’s history emboldening extremists who have harassed clergy and vandalised religious property at a quickening pace.
The increase in anti-Christian incidents comes as the Israeli settler movement, galvanised by its allies in government, appears to have seized the moment to expand its enterprise in the contested capital.
“The frequency of these attacks, the aggressions, has become something new,” Pizzaballa told the AP. “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 prioritises 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.”
But Christians say they feel authorities don’t protect their sites from targeted attacks. And tensions have surged after an Israeli police raid on the holy al-Aqsa mosque compound set off outrage among Muslims, and a regional confrontation last week.
Hostility towards minority Christians is nothing new in the teeming Old City, a crucible of tension that the Israeli government annexed in 1967.
But now Netanyahu’s far-right government includes settler leaders in key roles – such as the finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, and the 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.
Their influence has empowered Israeli settlers seeking to entrench Jewish control of the occupied 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 rightwing elements are out to Judaise 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 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 Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre, a group that coordinates between the denominations.
Physical assaults and harassment of clergy often go unreported, the centre 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 throughout 2022. Church leaders blame Israeli extremists for most of them, and say they fear further escalation.
“This escalation will bring more and more violence,” Pizzaballa said. “It will create a situation that will be very difficult to correct.”
In March, two 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 on to the floor, striking its face with a hammer a dozen times at the Church of the Flagellation on the Via Dolorosa, along which it is believed Jesus hauled his cross toward his crucifixion. “No idols in the holy city of Jerusalem!” he yelled.