Plight of Israel's Christians neglected in Jewish-Muslim conflict

Christians in the Holy Land face harassment and attacks on churches amid a decline in their numbers

Ben Joseph

Updated: January 25, 2022 06:53 AM GMT

Father Francesco Patton, custodian of the Holy Land, leads a prayer during a service at the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on Nov. 27, 2021. (Photo: AFP)

Israel's Christian population is fast dwindling while those of Jews and Muslims continue to grow, giving credence to the fears that a plan to expel Christians is underway in the Jewish state.

The growth rate of Christians in Israel is much slower than those of Jews and Muslims. In 1949, when Israel was recognized as a UN member nation, there were 34,000 Christians. They increased only fivefold in the past 70 years to 180,000 in 2019.

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But during the same period, Muslims in Israel grew 14 times to number 1.6 million and Jews grew some six times to number 6.69 million in 2019, says a report of the Israeli Statistics Office released last month.

The Druze, another religious minority in the Jewish state, increased almost tenfold from 15,000 to 143,000 in 2019.

The report noted that the falling number of Christians is due to the lower growth rate. The Christian growth rate was 1.9 percent, the lowest. The average growth rate was 2.43 for Jewish families and 2.60 for Muslim families, it said.

The lower growth rate of the Christian community in Israel is attributed to the violence due to the Palestine crisis. Often, their plight is overlooked as two main communities — Jews and Muslims — fight each other. As the fringe elements in both communities have become active in the last decade, Christians are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Contrary to its open and pluralistic character, Israel has seen a new spiral of violence, starting with Jerusalem, in the last decade

The largest Arab Christian population centers are Nazareth (21,400), Haifa (16,500) and Jerusalem (12,900). According to the report, 84 percent of Christians are satisfied with their life in Israel.

According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, 76.7 percent of Christians in Israel are Palestinian Arabs, who mainly live in the northern part of the country with more than 21,000 Christians in Nazareth.

Non-Arab Christians are mainly confined to Jaffa and Tel Aviv, mainly drawn from the countries of the former Soviet Union who have come to reside in Israel to catch up with their Jewish relatives.

Christian leaders have been complaining about harassment. On Jan. 17, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem met Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas and complained that fringe elements want to expel Christians from Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.

Patriarch Theophilos briefed the president on the frequent attacks on Christians, churches and clergy, and the continuous intimidation of Christians who exercise their natural right to worship.

Contrary to its open and pluralistic character, Israel has seen a new spiral of violence, starting with Jerusalem, in the last decade. The sectarian hatred is mainly targeted at mixed cities where Israeli Jews, Christians and Arabs have coexisted for a long time without any untoward incidents.

Among the factors that contributed to the sectarian hatred, according to Father Mikhael Abdo, national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies of the Holy Land, is the political narrative of the country that all Arabs in Israel are terrorists.

With Christians at the receiving end of sectarian violence, the Council of Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem launched a website titled Protecting Holy Land Christians in December last year.

The website hosted a statement by the Patriarchate of Jerusalem saying there have been countless attacks on priests, clergy and churches as well as vandalism and desecration of holy sites since 2012.

These tactics are being used by radical groups in a systematic way to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land, the statement said. It blamed local politicians, officials and law enforcement agencies for turning Nelson's eye to the atrocities on Christians.

The violence has put pressure on Christians to flee the country, which the statement called a historic tragedy unfolding in real time.

The World Council of Churches, an ecumenical fellowship of 349 churches, expressed strong support for the statement.

Israel has rejected allegations by church leaders that 'fringe radical groups' are driving Christians out of the Holy Land

Citing examples, the statement pointed out that the Romanian Orthodox monastery in Jerusalem was vandalized in March last year — the fourth time in a row in a single month.

In December 2020, the Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane, the place where Jesus prayed the night before he was crucified, was hit by an arson attack.

Fringe radical groups are buying property in the Christian-dominated areas of Jerusalem, which can reduce the local Christian presence and disrupt historic pilgrim routes between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Christian leaders allege.

Christian pilgrimages contribute US$3 billion annually to the Israeli exchequer.

Israel has rejected allegations by church leaders that fringe radical groups are driving Christians out of the Holy Land.

A government statement termed the allegations baseless and said they distort the reality of the Christian community in Israel.

The Israeli-Palestine conflict has often been misrepresented as a standoff between Jews and Muslims. Due to this, Christian sufferings take a back seat.

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