Christians are the target of Israel’s growing far-right

Christians in the Holy Land say they’re under attack as Israeli-Palestinian violence soars and Jewish extremists appear emboldened by Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government.

JERUSALEM – Brother Matteo Munari, who lives in a monastery in the Old City of Jerusalem, heard a disturbance at the Church of the Flagellation. This is the church where Christ was said to have carried the cross to his crucifixion.

Munari, 49 years old, found a 10-foot Jesus statue that had been knocked off its pedestal, thrown on the floor, and its face was partially damaged. The Franciscan friar reported that when the doorman of the church tackled the suspect suspected of knocking down the statue in February, he found Jewish ritual tassels hidden under his clothing.

He was almost crying. Munari said to NBC News that he was thinking, “We must destroy all the idols and statues in Jerusalem.”

He added, “I felt sorry for him.” I think he was trying to do the right things. The problem was probably not the man, but rather who told him to act in such a violent manner.

Israeli police confirmed the arrest of a U.S. national in his 40s at the scene. They added that investigators “worked diligently to maintain order, security and freedom of religion for members of every religious and denominational group.”

A damaged statue of Jesus in the Church of the Flagellation in the Old City of Jerusalem

Mostafa Alkharouf / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Police said that an American citizen was detained at the site of the attack. Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Church officials and Christian leaders from Israel claim that this incident was not an isolated one. Christians in Holy Land claim they are also under attack as tensions have escalated over Jewish and Muslim holy places in recent weeks.

They blame the Jewish extremists who are a minority for the attacks. However, they claim that Israel’s far right government has created a culture of impunity when it comes to attacks against non-Jews. This encourages the most extreme elements of the country.

In January, ultraorthodox Jewish lawmakers aligned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested imposing prison time for Christian proselytizing. However, after a worldwide outcry, Netanyahu announced he would stop the bill.

Dimitri Diliani is the head of the Palestinian National Christian Coalition. He said that he feels “more threatened than ever” by “Israeli policy.”

He said that “staying here and protecting our cultural heritage is getting more difficult.”

In the holiest city of Christianity, graffiti has been daubed on churches. Clergy who live and work in this area report that extremist Jews harass them, spit at them, and sometimes even attack them physically. Christian leaders claim that most incidents never receive a thorough investigation.

It is difficult to get exact numbers on anti-Christian incidents. Data compiled by Tag Meir – a Jewish organization that opposes racism against Israel’s minority – suggests that Jewish civilians have been attacking cemeteries and churches in Israel and occupied West Bank. Six such incidents were documented by the group in just the first three month of 2023, compared with only two in 2022 and 3 in 2021.

A priest removes debris from the statue at the Church of the Flagellation. The church was built in 1929, on an ancient site dating back to the 12th Century. Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Israel’s government has stated that its commitment to ensure that people of all religions can worship and live in safety is a core value of democracy. It also noted that Israel’s founding document enshrined freedom of religious belief for all, “by law and by practice.”

The national Israel police force has said that it is “in constant contact” with religious authorities to investigate vandalism, attacks, and other crimes and that its efforts to bring criminals to justice remain “unwavering”.

“As police for all residents and visitors of Jerusalem — Jews and Muslims — we take action against violence and vandalism and, in particular, those that hurt religious feelings,” Jerusalem District Chief of Police Doron Turgeman told the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos 3 during a meeting held recently.

The overlapping conflicts between Jews and Muslims, as well as Israelis and Palestinians, have at times overshadowed the plights of Christians in Israel’s complex social fabric.

Most, but not necessarily all, Christians living in Israel and West Bank are Palestinian. Christian Palestinians are a small minority in comparison to the majority of Palestinians who adhere to Islam.

Israeli Police said that they arrested over 350 people after clashes in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque this month. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP – Getty Images

Of all the tensions that are a part of the world, those surrounding the holy sites of both the Muslim and Jewish faiths have often attracted the most attention. This was evident in the violent riots that broke out in Israel this month in response to Israeli raids on the al-Aqsa Mosque complex, which is the third-holiest place in Islam. This same site is the holiest place in Judaism. It’s known as the Temple Mount to Jews.

These raids provoked retaliatory attacks of rockets by Palestinian-linked group in the Gaza Strip , Lebanon , and Syria. Israel responded by attacking these territories.

But Christian holy sites have also been flashpoints in the Old City. Most recently, on Saturday, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where many Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified. This is just a third of mile away from al Aqsa, and the Western Wall.

Tens of thousands pilgrims from all over the world gathered in the cobbled streets of the Christian Quarter to witness the Holy Firemiracle, an annual ceremony held on the day before Orthodox Holy Week. The number of worshippers was much larger than the 1,800 that the Israeli police announced they would allow into the church. This led to violent clashes between officers and the crowd.

Last week, Israel police kept Christian worshippers from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Josh Lederman / NBC News

In a verbal war that intensified as the ceremony neared, church officials accused Israeli Police of arbitrarily limiting worship to a fraction of those who had safely attended in the past. They called it a crackdown against freedom of worship. The police claimed that the restrictions were due to fire hazards and the risk of stampedes, claiming they relied on an engineer’s analysis as to how many people could fit safely in the church.

“We understand the tensions, because everyone wants to take part in this special occasion,” said police spokesman Dean Elsdunne Saturday in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre courtyard. “We are here to make sure that those who received permission from church leaders can attend the event safely.”

Propst Joachim Lenz, who walked along the paths of the Protestant Cemetery on the steep slopes Mount Zion where, according to tradition, the Last Supper was held, viewed the Old City from a distance. The gravestones of this historic cemetery are dated from the 1800s. However, many have been broken, tipped and defaced.

Two young men wearing clothing traditionally associated with Orthodox Jews broke into a cemetery in January and desecrated the headstones. Israeli police reported that 28 graves had been vandalized. A 14-year old and an 18 year-old were arrested and charged with vandalism.

Lenz, head of the German Lutheran church in Israel, said: “We don’t have the feeling that government is really helping to end this violence. To stop these attacks against people who simply do not share the same faith as the attackers.”

Gadi Gvaryahu, a Tag Meir witness who was only a few feet from the scene, agreed. Gvaryahu, who represents the Jewish group that pays condolences to extremist victims, said, “Now they feel better.”

Gvaryahu said, “It is like shooting into the heart of Judaism”, before leaving for home to observe the Jewish Sabbath before sunset. “This isn’t our faith. The Bible does not contain this. We all should condemn these extremists. We as Jews must condemn first.

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