Amid Rising Attacks on Christian Sites in Jerusalem, Urgency Grows Among Clergy

Attacks on Christian holy sites and Christian clergy have risen precipitously this year. 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 processional route in the Old City of Jerusalem. 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, characterizing physical and verbal assaults against Christian clergy and worshipers as “countless.” (Anecdotally, it 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’s been a growing effort to organize 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 centralizing all of the datasets “floating around,” some of which have recorded only large-scale attacks that make the news.


On an almost daily basis, 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,” Munayer said.


He added that even the best data might be incomplete. Because police are often slow to respond to these attacks, he said, clergy are hesitant to report them. And 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 Stephanopoulos, a former administrator of the Orthodox School of Bethany in Jerusalem.


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


Attacks that target 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, Brother Francesco Patton, 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 that’s a broad category that could include a range of different groups and beliefs. She sought to distance the broader 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, 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 which provide significant political and financial support to Israel – the response has also 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, the CUFI account tweeted seven times but didn’t once mention the attack. Instead, it posted about rockets fired from Gaza, a Lebanese businessman’s ties to Hezbollah – a Lebanese Shia Islamist political party and militant group – and antisemitism and Holocaust remembrance.


The Fellowship tweeted 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, tweeted twice about the issue this year. In mid-April, 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 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, as leaders fear being branded as anti-Semitic for denouncing attacks largely committed by religious Israeli Jews.


Daher said that he has seen international condemnations of attacks, but little further action.


“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 region 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.”


Netanyahu’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

About the author(s)

Sarah Cutler is a Stabile Fellow at Columbia Journalism School.