As thoughts and eyes turned to Bethlehem for Christmas, controversy was raging about the situation of the Christian communities in the Holy Land. The Heads of the Christian Churches published a pre-Christmas statement bewailing the threat to the continued presence of the Christian community in the Holy Land posed by extremist Jews who wish to drive them out of the land. The Israeli Foreign Office issued an angry rebuttal, suggesting that Christians in Israel enjoy full freedom of religion and the Christian community is growing and prospering.
So what’s going on? What is the situation of the Christian communities in the Holy Land?
The impact of the Coronavirus situation on the Christian communities should not be underestimated. Although Christians are amongst the best educated in the country, and on average significantly better off than Muslim Palestinians, much of the community is dependent on the tourism industry, hosting pilgrims who come to visit the Christian holy sites. The tourism industry has been decimated by the ongoing closure of the country to foreign visitors and the Christian community is hurting badly – particularly as those in the West Bank do not have recourse to unemployment payments or compensation from any government. The suggestion that Birthright groups might be given an exemption from the ban rightly infuriated the Church leaders.
Second, freedom of religion cannot be separated from other basic human rights. The Churches are responsible not only for Christians within Israel itself, but also for the Christian communities in the West Bank and Gaza. There, the Christians are subject to ongoing deprivations resulting from the political and military situation, added to which they cannot travel freely to worship in Jerusalem, for example. Thus those who have the opportunity to move away and build a better life elsewhere, where they are not subject to life under occupation, may be sorely tempted to do so.
Although the Churches’ statement acknowledged the “declared commitment” of the Israeli government to respecting the presence and rights of the Christian community, they suggested that in practice, little was being done to curb the actions of extremists who “regularly intimidate local Christians, assault priests and clergy, and desecrate Holy Sites and church properties.” The statement ends with a call to dialogue to address the challenges posed by radical groups, and to safeguard the heritage of the Christian quarter in Jerusalem.
Aside from the ongoing saga of the takeover of key buildings in the Old City by the right-wing settler group Ateret Cohanim, which threatens the character and long-term preservation of the historic Christian Quarter, the second burning issue that lies behind the Churches’ statement is the personal security of their clergy in public places. Priests in their robes are regular targets of curses and spitting – a subject that understandably causes deep concern for the safety of clergy walking through the Christian Quarter. The Churches are concerned not only about the physical safety of their clergy – but also about the humiliation they suffer from such attacks.
I would like to suggest that this type of behavior by teenage Jewish boys has its roots in the deep-seated Jewish fear of Christianity. Whilst giving a lecture on Jewish-Christian relations to a group in the US, I spoke about Jewish fear of Christian persecution and mission. One of the participants asked me why Jews are so scared of Christian missionaries. Obviously, it is rooted in centuries of Christian persecution of Jews in Europe – but is it really justified today? Assuming that the underlying cause is our perennial Jewish fear of annihilation whether by extermination or by assimilation, surely Christianity isn’t really the problem today? Isn’t it time we laid our fears to rest, learned a little about the Christian faith – and more importantly, got to know the incredible richness of Christian communities that we have on our doorstep here in the Holy Land?
In the meantime, the external trappings of Christmas are becoming increasingly popular amongst Israeli Jews, who flock to Christmas markets, midnight mass, Christmas concerts and the like – but this is not a sign that Jews in Israel have become less suspicious of Christianity or more aware of the local Christian communities – but merely that they are attracted by the sparkle of the lights and the hype of commercialism.
At the Rossing Center, one of our programs educates and trains teachers, tour guides, government officials and other multipliers about Christianity and the local Christian communities. But in Israeli schools, if children learn about Christianity at all, it is almost invariably in the context of Christian persecution of Jews in Europe – thus it is hardly surprising that young people develop hostility towards Christianity in general and perhaps official representatives of the faith in particular. As well as official steps to curb the actions of extremists, we have a responsibility to educate new generations to be confident in their Jewish identity, unthreatened by people of other backgrounds and cultures, and committed to preserving religious freedom and respect towards members of all faiths. Perhaps this can help change what people see when their eyes turn towards Bethlehem – not only the Bethlehem from 2000 years ago, but also the Bethlehem of today.