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Ecumenical institute releases report highlighting harassment of Christians in Holy Land

A reporter from an Israeli news outlet at a press conference hosted by the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue. The Center presented its report called “Attacks on Christians in Israel and East Jerusalem” on June 4, 2024, at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. | Credit: Marinella Bandini

Ecumenical institute releases report highlighting harassment of Christians in Holy Land

By Marinella Bandini

On June 4, the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem hosted a press conference to present a report analyzing the disturbing rise in hostilities toward Christians in Israel and East Jerusalem in 2023. The data was collected as part of an initiative launched by the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue to document harassment suffered by Christians.

The Rossing Center is an interreligious and peace-building organization based in Jerusalem.

The monitoring and tracking of attacks against Christians (data collection, evidence gathering, etc.) was made possible through collaboration with Christian churches and other civil society partners or associations, in particular the Religious Freedom Data Center founded by Yisca Harani, an Israeli lecturer, adviser, and researcher of Christian history and interfaith issues.

The entrance to the Chapel Seminar Room of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, which on June 4, 2024, hosted the press conference organized by the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue for the presentation of the report “Attacks on Christian in Israel and East Jerusalem.” Credit: Marinella Bandini

Despite the context having completely changed, inside and outside Israel, with the outbreak of the war, “we believe that it is crucial — and perhaps even more crucial — to bring this issue to the attention of the wide world at this point,” Federica Sasso, editor of the report, pointed out at the press conference.

According to the report, there were 90 known attacks in 2023. The data showed a notable increase in cases of spitting (30 complaints), physical and verbal harassment (11), as well as attacks on Christian properties (32).

Recently, the attack suffered by Father Nikodemus Schnabel, the abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition, which was filmed live on the air, elicited a strong response, as CNA reported Feb. 8.

Father Nikodemus Schnabel, abbot of the Benedictine Basilica of the Dormition in Jerusalem, speaks during an ecumenical prayer service that took place at the Cenacle on Jan. 25, 2024. Credit: Marinella Bandini

A number of acts of violence against Christians made headlines in 2023, such as the desecration of the Protestant cemetery at Mount Zion and the vandalization of a statue of Jesus inside the Franciscan shrine of the Flagellation on Via Dolorosa.

A notable example of impactful media coverage illustrating the severity of the situation was a report by Israeli TV Channel 13 in which a journalist assumed the role of a Franciscan monk to document attacks in the Old City, only to find himself spat at by a soldier.

Father Enrico Maiorano (foreground) of the Capuchin friary in Jerusalem on June 4, 2024, at the press conference presenting the report “Attacks on Christians in Israel and East Jerusalem” prepared by the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue. Credit: Marinella Bandini

Repeated spitting was caught on security cameras both on the Via Dolorosa and in front of the Armenian Cathedral of St. James.

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Sasso told CNA in a private conversation at the press conference. “For example, we only have on record 30 known cases of spitting, but from interviews we conducted especially with members of the clergy, we know that the majority of them suffer regular spitting attacks multiple times a week.”

“The problem,” Sasso stressed, ”is on the one hand the lack of knowledge of the phenomenon on the part of the authorities in charge of public order; on the other hand, the failure to report by victims who often tend to minimize. Instead, reporting is very important, because it is the only way to bring out the real dimensions of the problem — even in the eyes of the authorities themselves.”

Father Enrico Maiorano, a Capuchin friar who attended the conference, told CNA that he has been subjected to such attacks, especially in the Old City of Jerusalem.

“It has happened to me several times that Jews spit on me. The last one [was] a few days ago. Until now I had never thought of reporting, but now when I go to the Old City, I always keep my cellphone camera on so I can document any assaults.”

A moment from the press conference presenting the report “Attacks on Christians in Israel and East Jerusalem” prepared by “Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue”. From left to right: John Munayer, director of the International Engagement Department of the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue; Hana Bendcowsky, program director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (JCJCR), a program of the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue; Federica Sasso, editor of the report “Attacks on Christians in Israel and East Jerusalem”; and Dr. Sani Ibrahim Azar, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. Credit: Marinella Bandini

In her speech, Hana Bendcowsky, program director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (JCJCR), called on the Christians, especially the clergy, to take action.

The challenge is to convince the clergy to report both the severe and the small incidents and collect the most evidence and data possible,” she said. “The accumulation of data would help us to put pressure on the authorities.”

Bendcowsky also painted a picture of the wider context in which these incidents occur.

“These attacks are not new, but it seems the frequency and the severity are growing. Authorities have no idea what Christians are going through, and that’s because they’re not reported about. In addition, Jews are unfamiliar with Christianity and tend to project their own fears as a persecuted minority onto Christians, seeing them as a hostile or otherwise unwelcome presence,” Bendcowsky said. “Finally, we have a polarized political climate where political figures allow themselves to express extremist views, with no one putting limits, and this legitimizes the attackers.”

In terms of the identity of the attackers, the report said that “the majority of perpetrators are Jewish individuals — primarily young men identifying with the Religious Zionist camp and ultra-nationalist stances.” The report emphasized that they are “fringes of Jewish society” and that “harassing behaviors are not normative, and the majority of individuals do not partake in such actions.”

John Munayer, a Palestinian Christian and the director of the Rossing Center’s International Engagement Department, underscored that “most of the attacks and cases of harassment in the report are [those] targeting international Christians, including pilgrims.” 

Additionally, for Christians living in East Jerusalem, “the daily realities of checkpoints, police/army harassment, restricted movement, and economic hardships overshadow these specific instances of harassment, relegating them to a lower priority.”

According to Munayer, “the international Christian community around the world ought to take more of an active role in addressing and pressuring the relevant individuals, authorities, and bodies to see the security and freedom of worship of Christians living in the Holy Land.”

His words were echoed by Lutheran Bishop Sani Ibrahim Azar, who spoke of a constant threat to Christians in the Holy Land.

“Exact numbers for anti-Christian incidents are hard to come by. Data … suggest that there has been a dramatic rise in attacks by Jewish civilians” against the Christians “in Israel and the occupied West Bank,” Azar said.

Participants at the press conference where a report called “Attacks on Christians in Israel and East Jerusalem” was presented by the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem on June 4, 2024. Credit: Marinella Bandini

The report emphasized “the urgent need for collaborative efforts to address escalating hostilities against Christians in Jerusalem and advocates for a comprehensive approach involving condemnation by state and religious authorities, law enforcement, education, community involvement, media engagement, and international awareness.”

Additionally, the report contained a number of concrete proposals, including “enhancing police intervention, boosting the presence of police officers in critical areas, and promoting awareness of attacks on Christians; offering training regarding Christianity to members of local police, the municipality and other relevant authorities; improving curricula about Christianity in the public education system; stronger condemnations from the authorities and religious Jewish leadership; and encouraging Christian communities to report [attacks].”

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