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Judith SudilovskyJune 29, 2023
An Orthodox Jewish man walks near the entrance to the Upper Room on Mt. Zion in the Old City of Jerusalem June 18, 2023. (OSV News photo/Debbie Hill)

UPDATE: Israeli President Isaac Herzog denounced the increasing violence against Christians in Israel during a visit on Aug. 9 to the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery in Haifa. Herzog emphasized Israel's commitment to the full protection of freedom of religion and worship. He met with patriarchs and church leaders including Cardinal-designate Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, and Father Jean Joseph Bergara, the monastery superior of Stella Maris.

The visit comes against the background of recent attacks against the monastery in particular by a few fringe members of the Breslov ultra-orthodox sect who began arriving at the monastery in May, claiming it was a Jewish holy site, and increasing attacks against churches and Christian clergy in general.

"In recent months we have seen very serious phenomena towards the Christian denominations in the Holy Land," said Herzog. "Our brothers and sisters, Christian citizens, who feel attacked in their places of prayer, in their cemeteries, on the streets. I view this phenomenon as extreme and unacceptable in any shape or form. This phenomenon needs to be uprooted."

In July 2015, the Benedictine Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes was severely damaged by a fire set by Jewish extremists. A year and a half later, one Jewish settler was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for that crime.

The trial itself was especially troubling for one Benedictine brother. The arsonist’s defense lawyer had been particularly belligerent in the courtroom, Abbot Nikodemus Schnabel, O.S.B., remembered. The lawyer was Itamar Ben-Gvir, now the minister of national security in what has been described as the most extreme right-wing, religious government in Israel’s history.

“In 2015, I could say there are these Jewish terrorists [attacking Christians and Christian holy sites], but the official Israel is supporting us,” Father Schnabel told America. He added that at the time of the attack eight years ago, then-Israeli president Reuven Rivlin and Israeli Knesset members—among them even those who were politically right-wing—all came to express support for the monks and condemn the attack.

“Now we monks have to live under a government, one of whose members is an extreme Christian hater,” Father Schnabel said. “I want to make this very clear: The Minister of National Security [of Israel] was the defense lawyer of the Jewish terrorists who carried out the arson in Tabgha. He did not behave like a professional lawyer. It was a really traumatizing experience. How should I feel secure and safe under this government?”

“Now we monks have to live under a government, one of whose members is an extreme Christian hater,” Father Schnabel said.

And indeed, Christians and their Jewish supporters are reporting a dramatic increase in anti-Christian incidents ranging from spitting to vandalism, mainly in Jerusalem’s Old City where Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites are located in close proximity to one another and where Christian clerics and religious men and women are more visible.

“This is a dramatic change,” Father Schnabel said. “It is much worse than 20 years ago when I entered monastic life, when a spitting incident happened once every six months. Now it has become a daily thing. I am spit on every day. It is not a question of if, but of when.”

In a conference convened on the topic of why some Jews spit on Christians, held on June 16 at the Armenian Patriarchate in the Old City, independent Israeli researcher, lecturer and interfaith activist Yisca Harani said that since she and other activists established the Religious Freedom Data Center hotline a month ago, they have recorded at least one spitting attack every day. Most of these street and alley attacks are being carried out mainly on clergy who are visibly Christian and Christian buildings and symbols, not on private Christian individuals.

Just a day prior to the conference, there had been a vandalism attack on the Cenacle on Mt. Zion, where stained glass windows were shattered. That same day, the Polish Sisters of St. Elizabeth, whose convent borders an ultra-orthodox neighborhood in West Jerusalem, reported that a trespasser had broken into their garden and thrown a stone at a window. Both incidents have been recorded and filed with the Jerusalem police through the hotline and are under investigation, said Ms. Harani.

According to Ms. Harani, the hostile gesture of spitting at Christians or Christian symbols has origins in Europe in the Middle Ages. It was often a last act of defiance for Jews who were being tortured by Christians who were attempting to forcibly convert them.

Christians and their Jewish supporters are reporting a dramatic increase in anti-Christian incidents ranging from spitting to vandalism, mainly in Jerusalem’s Old City.

But in modern-day Israel, the gesture of spitting has been taken out of that context, she said. Living in a Jewish-majority country, most Israeli Jews have never met Christians unless they have lived in a mixed-population city like Haifa in the north or Jaffa, adjacent to Tel Aviv, she said.

Because it is difficult for Israelis to admit there are some Jews who are doing “this terrible thing,” the authorities tend to insist it is confined to marginal extremist groups and that spitting incidents do not happen in significant numbers, she said.

“As concerned Israeli Jews—religious and secular—we started escorting Christian [clergy] in the Old City in order to photograph these incidents. We established the hotline,” she said. “We are going now with a series of documentaries and interviews and we are bringing this to the surface so the government can’t keep going around with this ‘ostrich policy,’ with their heads stuck in the sand. They all say we are exaggerating and that it is anti-Semitic” to bring attention to the problem.

Since elections in November 2022 that led to the latest Likud-led government, a number of serious attacks have been recorded against Christians, including spitting on the Armenian archbishop of Jerusalem during a religious procession that month, the vandalism of graves at the Anglican cemetery in January, vandalism of a statue of Jesus at the Church of the Flagellation in February and an attack on Greek Orthodox priests at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in March.

But the majority of spitting cases and individual acts of harassment go unreported to authorities, Ms. Harani said, because there is a lack of confidence in the police and foreign clergy fear having their visas revoked. The hotline hopes to address that reporting gap by compiling complaints and presenting them every month to Jerusalem police, she said.

According to Ms. Harani, the hostile gesture of spitting at Christians or Christian symbols has origins in Europe in the Middle Ages.

Because of the location of the St. James Armenian Cathedral and the Armenian Patriarchate adjacent to the Jewish Quarter along a route leading to the Western Wall, a Jewish holy site, Christian clergy are frequent targets. Though the attacks are recorded by Armenian surveillance cameras, legal action against the perpetrators is rarely taken, if at all.

In the last few months, the spitting incidents have increased, according to Armenian Patriarchate Chancellor Aghan Gogchyan.

“I don’t know what the reason is, but I think every day if there isn’t an incident in front of our patriarchate, there is one in another [Christian] community,” said Father Gogchyan. “Whenever we show police the videos, they say it is under investigation, but instead of decreasing [spitting attacks are] increasing.

“The problem is whenever [perpetrators] don’t get a harsh punishment from the government or authorities, they take that as encouragement that they can do it without being punished.”

He noted that Armenian seminarians who have come to Jerusalem to study have also been spat upon as they walk to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre from the Armenian Patriarchate, and sometimes they respond in kind, ratcheting up the tension during such confrontations.

“Imagine 14- or 15-year-old young seminary students on the first day at the seminary are walking to the Holy Sepulchre with the expectation to see the Holy Sepulchre, to pray, and then someone spits on them,” Father Gogchyan said. The young seminarians are less in control of their emotions and sometimes react to provocations, he explained.

“They are young teenagers…they can’t bear it like we priests can, who have this experience for many years and we ignore it. They are suffering. [Someone] comes and spits at you—that is violence.”

“They are young teenagers…they can’t bear it like we priests can, who have this experience for many years and we ignore it. They are suffering. [Someone] comes and spits at you—that is violence.”

At the end of May, Jewish extremists led by Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Arieh King also attacked a pro-Israeli group of Evangelical Christian pilgrims who were holding a “prayer for Jerusalem” at an archaeological park adjacent to the Western Wall. Another such attack took place in downtown Jerusalem on June 22 at a prayer concert advertised by the Association for Messianic Jews. One of the attackers was detained for allegedly assaulting police officers, a Jerusalem district police spokesperson said in a statement.

“The Israel Police will continue to uphold the principles of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, in accordance with the law,” the statement said. “However, any actions that contravene public order, including rioting, will not be tolerated or condoned by law enforcement authorities.”

In an unusual gesture aimed at bringing Israeli attention to the increasing attacks, Francesco Patton, O.F.M., the Custos of the Holy Land, allowed a Channel 13 Israeli news reporter to don a Franciscan habit and go undercover in the Old City, accompanied by Alberto Pari, O.F.M., a Franciscan priest who is responsible for interfaith dialogue sponsored by the Custody of the Holy Land, the Franciscan province responsible for Holy Land sites.

The segment, which was broadcast during prime time on Israeli television on June 24, documents how some Israelis laughed and mocked Catholic clerics as they walked by, said Father Pari, but a more serious incident occurred when a religious soldier in the Old City on an education tour with his army unit spat at what he presumed were two passing friars. The news reporter later took off the habit he was wearing and confronted the soldier.

“These acts they are doing continue to increase…when the political language became more violent,” the Custos said in the television report.

Dr. Gadi Gvaryahu, chairman of Tag Meir umbrella groups which respond to all acts of racist violence with personal visits to those affected, told the reporter that he felt that a restraining strap in Israeli society has been broken because of the inclusion in the government of several racist political parties that promote Jewish supremacy.

The extremist groups “feel they are allowed to do anything,” he said.

Following the broadcast, the Speaker of the Knesset denied a request by a Knesset member from a centrist political party to hold a discussion about the issue. Despite that non-response from the Knesset, Father Pari said the Franciscans did receive “an official report from the army that the soldier has been punished by detention on his military base for 28 days.”

“I have to be honest that before I was more comfortable [going out in the street],” Father Pari said. “Now I am not afraid, but I know already every time I go out on the street someone will say something. This will happen on a daily basis.

“I hope after this is broadcast on the news it will not be worse,” he said.

It is clear that the majority of Jewish Israelis do not behave this way, Father Pari said, and the majority of the perpetrators are young, ultra-orthodox Jews, many of them settlers. The majority of the incidents happen in Jerusalem, he added.

The solution to the street attacks must come from education not only in schools but also from religious leaders, Father Pari said. Indeed, both Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau and the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel and current Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar published strongly worded letters condemning assaults on Christians in the Old City.

“We are not permitted to disparage any man who was created in the image of God,” Rabbi Amar wrote in a rare English-language letter three weeks ago.

“I believe it is very dangerous for everybody, not only for Christians. It is very dangerous domestically, but it is also dangerous to the image of Israel worldwide.”

In Haifa, Wadie Abunassar, the spokesman and coordinator of the Holy Land Christian Forum, said the forum has also invited an Israeli news team to document how some Jews from a controversial subgroup of an ultra-orthodox sect have started to come to pray at the Carmelite Stella Maris Monastery. Catholic tradition holds that the monastery is built on site of the cave grotto where the Prophet Elijah took refuge. According to Mr. Abunassar, the ultra-orthodox now claim that Elijah’s disciple Elisha, also considered a prophet, is buried there.

The Christian community is concerned that if swift action is not taken to prevent ultra-orthodox Jews from praying at the site, Christians will soon find themselves relegated to the status of guests in their own monastery, he said.

Following a protest last week which led to a meeting with Haifa officials, the monastery was declared a “hot spot” and police have increased patrols in the area, he said.

Mr. Abunassar said contemporary Christians in Israel feel frustration, anger and—among some—even hatred toward the Israeli establishment.

“The [root] of the problem is not those individuals who are doing those attacks,” he said, but …how the establishment deals, or doesn’t deal, with those attacks.” He charged that Jerusalem authorities have been ignoring assaults and harassment of Christians for years.

“Enough is enough,” said Mr. Abunassar.

Mr. Abunassar said many Israelis feel the current government is behaving like the “indirect patron” of different attacks by some settlers and ultra-orthodox because it is spreading a “poisonous atmosphere,” mostly passively but also actively, such as when Mr. Ben-Gvir called on settlers on June 23 to take over hilltops in the West Bank.

“Now [extremism] is practically left to do whatever it wants without any real condemnation or effort by the government to stop it,” Mr. Abunassar said. “I believe it is very dangerous for everybody, not only for Christians. It is very dangerous domestically, but it is also dangerous to the image of Israel worldwide.”

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