Amid Rising Attacks on Christian Sites in Jerusalem, a Growing Sense of Urgency Among Clergy and Advocates

The mosaic floor at the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves & Fishes in Northern Israel. Far-right Jewish extremists vandalized and committed arson at the church in 2015. (Photo by Greg Dobak)

JERUSALEM – Attacks on Christian holy sites and Christian clergy have risen precipitously in recent months. Sadly, examples abound. Days after the New Year, two Israeli Jewish teenagers were caught on camera vandalizing and destroying 30 graves at the Protestant Mount Zion Cemetery in Jerusalem.

Weeks later, a mob of settlers attacked an Armenian wine bar in the Old City, chanting, “death to Arabs, death to Christians.” In early February, a Jewish American tourist smashed a statue of Jesus inside the Church of the Flagellation, located on the Via Dolorosa. A video of the attack shows the perpetrator saying, “you can’t have idols in Jerusalem; this is the holy city” as someone tries to restrain him.

These represent only a fraction of attacks against Christian sites in Jerusalem. Many are perpetrated by radical Israeli Jewish groups seeking to create a more uniform Jewish character in the city, who have been emboldened by Israel’s current far-Right government, experts say.

The first two months of 2023 saw as many attacks as in all of 2022, according to data tracked by the Jerusalem Interchurch Center.

“It’s getting worse,” said Yousef Daher, the Center’s executive director. “There is an attack on the Christian identity” of Jerusalem. There have been incidents throughout Israel and in the West Bank, but much of the violence is centered on Jerusalem, where different religious communities are mixing to a greater extent, Daher said.

In recent years, efforts to track these attacks have been fragmented, with organizations using different methodologies to record the growing violence. For example, the Interchurch Center’s data tracks only attacks on property. The center characterized physical and verbal assaults against Christian clergy and worshipers as “countless.” (Anecdotally, the report cites one Armenian clergyman who claimed he has been spat on more than 90 times.)

But amid an outcry among Christian leaders in Jerusalem, there has been a growing effort to streamline different datasets, to more clearly demonstrate the scope of the problem and garner elusive international attention, said John Munayer, a Palestinian Christian activist and the director of international engagement at the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue. The Rossing Center is in the midst of centralizing all of the datasets “floating around,” some of which have recorded only the large-scale attacks that make the news.

On an almost daily basis in Jerusalem, Munayer said, there are incidents where Christian clergy get taunted or slapped or spat on. “But many of the databases only record big events, like going into a church and knocking something down.”

He added that even the best data may be incomplete. Police are often slow to respond to these attacks, he said, so clergy have been deterred from reporting the incidents . For clergy from other countries, there is an added fear that if they speak up, the Israeli government may not renew their visas, said Mother Agapia, a former administrator of the Orthodox School of Bethany.

Mother Agapia said the violence has gotten “a little bit more aggressive” in recent months, and that its focus seems to be on diminishing the visible Christian presence throughout the country.

“It’s not so much of direct attacks on people; it’s more about making your mark,” she said. “It’s not about ‘don’t go to church’ – it’s more like we don’t want the mark of this Christianity” in our city.

Tania Berg-Refaeli, the director of World Religions for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said “there’s a feeling” attacks are increasing, though she was unaware of official Israeli government data on the issue.  

The Israeli police, Berg-Refaeli said, are on top of the situation. “We observe an increase of the quick, swift reaction of the police that wasn’t the case before,” she said. “This was thanks to the understanding that something is happening and something needs to be done.”

A spokesman for the Israeli police did not respond to multiple requests for comment on efforts taken to track or combat attacks against Christian sites and clergy.

In response to the violence, multiple church leaders in Jerusalem formed the Protecting Holy Land Christians Campaign in late 2021. The campaign has been outspoken about attacks, reaching out to news organizations to highlight the trend. In late March, it posted an “Easter Message” on Twitter that cited “escalating violence” and indirectly criticized what it sees as a lackluster response by the Israeli government.

Attacks and targeting of Christian worship have come “in spite of our agreements to cooperate with governing authorities, and to accommodate any reasonable requests that they might present,” the message reads. “We ask the overseeing officials to work cooperatively and collaboratively with us.”

The organization compiled a dossier of attacks in the last 10 years, which it argues have endangered the “security and prosperity of Christians in Jerusalem, and the ability of local

Christians and international pilgrims to worship freely.”

Church leaders have argued that the attacks are one of the primary factors contributing to a shrinking Palestinian Christian population in Israel, relative to the size of other communities. (The precise figures are disputed, but Israeli government statistics show that Christians made up less than 2% of the Israeli population in 2022, compared to about 10% in 1948.) In a 2021 op-ed, the Catholic Church’s Custos of the Holy Land and guardian of the Christian holy places wrote that 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 wrote.

Though many of the attackers are never identified, most fit a particular profile: “male, young, religious and…studying in yeshiva,” Munayer said. But the Rossing Center’s and Interchurch Center’s datasets do not include the identity of the perpetrators, and it can be difficult for police to determine their identity – especially in places where there are no surveillance cameras, said Berg-Refaeli.

Though she acknowledged that “obviously, most of the perpetrators are religious Jews,” she said that’s a broad category that could mask a range of different groups and beliefs. She sought to distance the larger Israeli society from these attacks, calling the perpetrators “marginal” and “extremists.”

“Unfortunately, like in any society, the extremists are more vocal, more predominant voice,” she added. “The silent moderate voices are not being heard.”

Multiple experts accused the Israeli government of inadequately responding to the attacks, and in many cases distancing itself by claiming the perpetrator suffered from mental illness or was not an Israeli citizen.

Many church leaders have decried what they see as a muted response from the international community to these attacks. After the mid-March attack at the Church of Gethsemane (whose perpetrator was actually Christian), the Patriarchate of Jerusalem released a statement emphasizing the near-daily nature of these attacks, and expressing frustration at the lack of international support the community has received.

“This dismal situation hasn’t drawn any appropriate reaction, locally or internationally, despite appeals, requests, and protests made by the Churches of the Holy Land,” the statement reads.

Among international Evangelical Christian organizations – some of whom provide significant political and financial support to Israel – the response has been muted. The Twitter feeds of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and Christian Friends of Israel make no mention of any of the attacks in 2023, focusing instead on threats facing Israel and the Jewish people. For example, on January 26, the date of the attack on the Armenian wine bar, CUFI posted seven times on Twitter but didn’t once mention the attack. Instead, it posted about rockets fired from Gaza, a Lebanese businessman’s ties to Hezbollah, and antisemitism and Holocaust remembrance.

The Fellowship posted twice that day – both about the history of Auschwitz and a “flashback” to the organization’s financial support for Holocaust survivors.

Robert Nicholson, the evangelical president of the Christian Philos Project, posted twice about the issue this year. Last week, he wrote that Philos “would get to the bottom of” rising incidents against Christians, promising “more on that soon.” Philos’s website includes a statement on its position on Christians of the Near East, affirming “the right of all Christians to live and flourish as indigenous citizens of the Near East.”

“Given the long history of discrimination and persecution, we believe that Near Eastern Christians deserve unique protections – even affirmative action – in order to preserve their language, culture, and religious practices,” the statement reads. 

None of these organizations responded to multiple emails or calls requesting comment.

Munayer said there is growing international awareness of attacks on Christian sites, but it remains a sensitive issue for churches around the world who fear being branded as anti-Semitic for denouncing attacks largely committed by religious Israeli Jews.

For his part, Daher has seen international condemnations of attacks, but little action to back them up.

“It’s meaningless, really,” Daher said. “There is no pressure, no political fear. Without political pressure, you cannot get results.”

In a March blog post, Ophir Yarden, director of ADAShA: The Jerusalem Center for Interreligious Encounter at the Rossing Center, acknowledged churches’ calls for international support but noted that they should be entitled to support from the Israeli government.

“Failure to protect the Christians and their holy sites is to violate a solemn promise in Israel’s own Declaration of Independence,” Yarden wrote. “Both Hillel the Elder, as well as Jesus, taught that we must treat the religious other as we would want to be treated. This is a sacred obligation.”

Israel has long touted itself as a safe haven for Christians in a neighborhood of otherwise-hostile Muslim countries.

“If you are a Christian in the Middle East, there’s only one place where you are safe,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office tweeted in 2018. In what has been a central message to Western audiences, he cast Israel as the only place in the region where “the Christian community is growing, thriving, prospering.”

His office did not respond to a request for comment about whether he still believes this to be true.

 Drawing the Iconostasis: A Teaching Moment for a Russian Orthodox Sunday School Class

A brief and sparsely attended English-language service had just ended at the Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral, and the larger Sunday service wouldn’t begin for another hour. The cathedral, located at 15 E. 97th Street, was dimly lit and somber as a few remaining worshipers from the morning service roamed the room, silently placing candles as offerings and leaning in to kiss the icons paneling the walls.

The center of the room was nearly empty. This church has no pews; instead, its parishioners stand scattered throughout the room, facing the altar. Wooden benches line the room’s perimeter, allowing older congregants to take a break when they need. The nave, where the congregation stands, is richly adorned: icons and intricate patterns cover every inch of the walls and high, domed ceiling. Many of the icons, within their wooden frames, are covered in diamonds and strands of pearls. The iconostasis, a partition at the front of the room that separates the nave from the sanctuary, is covered in gold.

In such a setting, the two empty gray plastic benches in the center of the room looked out of place, a better fit for a high school cafeteria than a place of worship.

Suddenly, the reason for the benches became clear. A Sunday school class, with students of all ages, emerged out of a side door, holding pencils and paper and buzzing with energy, even as their teacher tried to keep them in line. They kneeled at the benches, using them as desks, gazing up at the altar and the iconostasis with their faces lit by the candlelight. With whispered words of guidance—in Russian—from their teacher, each began to draw this ornate partition.

The iconostasis, most important architectural feature of Orthodox churches, separates the sanctuary—where communion is prepared—from the nave. In early Christian times, the screen restricted access to the sanctuary for the secular without hiding it completely from congregants’ eyes. The Eucharist, or communion, is central to Orthodox worship, which is why congregants look toward the place where bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. At Saint Nicholas, the nave is dimly lit, except for worshipers’ candles, while the sanctuary is brighter, but only partially visible.

The teacher gave the children room to focus on what stood out to them. Some drew from the ground up, gripping pencils tightly as they outlined the three steps leading to the altar. (The teacher helped one boy draw the steps in straight lines.) Others focused on the painted icons covering the closed golden gates, the “holy doors” through which only priests and deacons may pass. One girl, who spotted a priest preparing for the next service, waved her drawing so that he could see its progress. He gave her a furtive wave, his smile at odds with the solemnity of his long black cloak.

One girl, about 13, separated from the group and faced the back of the church, where she could get a better look at a large icon of Jesus hanging over the door. She was intensely focused on her drawing, leaning on her raised leg, and didn’t notice a worshiper take a pause from his movement through the sanctuary to look over her shoulder and up at the icon, appraising her work with a small smile.

Facing the back, she was the first of the children to see worshipers filing in for the morning’s main service, its liturgy in the ancient Church Slavonic language. With more offerings, the candlelight around the room grew brighter. The priests donned their golden robes, and it was time for the children to file out before the gates would open.