Meeting US President Joe Biden at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem on Friday, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Patriarch Theophilos III spoke out against what he called “unprecedented attacks by Israeli radical groups” meant to repel Christians from the holy city.
In a statement, he said he told the US leader that such radicals act “without accountability” and that their actions include attacks on churches and efforts to seize properties.
He pointed to “the challenges facing Christians and the extent to which things have reached,” including attacks on churches, insults against clergy, attempts to block the faithful from places of worship, and attempts to seize Christian real estate.
Jerusalem is home to three monotheistic religions, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and has long been an illuminating example of a mosaic community. It is the spiritual capital of the world, comprising a family of faiths, all of which enjoy a long, unique, and rich heritage.
Christian leaders have increasingly complained that their communities are under threat of being driven from the region by extremist Israeli radical groups.
In June, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision not to block the transfer of rights to three buildings in Jerusalem’s Old City to Ateret Cohanim, exhausting all recourse for the Greek Orthodox church after a drawn-out legal battle.
Ateret Cohanim is a religious-Zionist organization that works to populate the Old City and other East Jerusalem neighborhoods with Jewish residents by purchasing properties from non-Jewish owners.
The decision dealt a final blow to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate’s efforts to fight a 2004 sale of leases for two hotels near the Jaffa Gate and a third property in the Christian Quarter.
Extremist Jewish activists have for years carried out vandalism attacks against Christian sites in Jerusalem and other areas of Israel, including hate graffiti and arson. The extremists also target Palestinians.
Greek Churches “desecrated and vandalized”
In January 2022, writing in the Times, Theophilos III said that “Our churches are threatened by Israeli radical fringe groups. Our brothers and sisters are the victims of hate crimes. Our churches are regularly desecrated and vandalized. Our clergy are subject to frequent intimidation.”
Theophilos said that this ancient tradition in Jerusalem is under threat by Zionist groups who are trying to buy property at Jaffa Gate, the main entrance to the Christian quarter of Old City Jerusalem.
“Quite disingenuously they claim that their physical presence in there will not affect the integrity of the Christian Quarter,” Theophilos reported. “However, we know from their previous actions at St John’s Hostel, a site even closer to the Holy Sepulchre which was also deceitfully taken over by them some years ago, that this is not true.”
Theophilos, among others, fears that “Their [behavior] will be devastating for all Christians. Local families, who have lived here for generations, will be made to feel unwelcome in their own home and pilgrims who have longed to visit the birthplace of the Christian faith will have their experience diminished.”
Furthermore, Theophilos notes that these radicals are not representative of the state of Israel or the Jewish people, but warns that it is essential for the diversity and distinctive characters of all quarters of the Old City “to be protected for the benefit of Jerusalem and the whole world.”