Millions of Christians around the world have come together to celebrate the religious festival of Easter. As a former Christian myself, I remember it very well as being a period of quiet reflection combined with family celebrations.
Sadly, Easter 2016 will probably be remembered for the bloody attack of a suicide bomber in a crowded park in Pakistan on Sunday. The atrocity, said to be carried out by a splinter faction of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaat ul-Ahrar, is the latest of a number in recent years to have targeted the small Christian community in the country. Elsewhere, Christian communities are finding themselves targeted by Daesh terrorists; in parts of Iraq they are being threatened with total eradication. No aspect of this appalling situation, I might add, is sanctioned by the source texts of Islam.
Hence, it was hardly a surprise that Pope Francis used part of his Easter message to condemn terrorism as “blind and brutal violence” that should be fought with “weapons of love”. As the Pope delivered this Easter’s “Urbi et Orbi” (his message “to the city and the world”) from St Peter’s Square in Vatican City, I wondered if he would mention the small, but important, Palestinian Christian community which faces regular discrimination in the birthplace of Christianity.
Last summer a treaty between the Holy See and Palestine was sealed when the Vatican officially recognised the “State of Palestine”. The historic agreement called for moves to end the Palestine-Israel conflict and backed a two-state solution, referring to Palestine as a “state”, meaning that the Vatican recognises it as an equal partner.
With Christian communities in turmoil across the Middle East, though, the plight of the Palestinian Christians appeared to be overlooked in the Pope’s Easter message. That is both sad and baffling when you consider the important role that Jerusalem plays at this time of year in the Christian calendar.
The Holy City is central to the three great monolithic faiths and has witnessed many turbulent times as nations and religions have fought over the centuries to control it. Arguably alone of the three, however, it has been under Muslim rule that Jerusalem, or Al Quds as it is known in the Arab world, offered Muslim, Christian and Jewish pilgrims state protection to practice their faith freely and unhindered. That stopped with the 1967 military occupation by Israel, since when both Christians and Muslims have faced religious persecution and discrimination on several different levels.
In the front line is the Palestinian population of Jerusalem, Muslims and Christians alike. These Jerusalem-born Palestinians face the ongoing annexation of their land, the demolition of their homes and eviction. The inescapable fact is that they are the victims of ethnic cleansing by the Israelis. The elimination of the Palestinian presence in the Holy City is being brought about by the systematic destruction of homes and culture, and expulsion of the people, which gives way to the seemingly unstoppable expansion of massive illegal settlement blocs.
On another level it has become increasingly difficult for Christians to go about their business in Jerusalem’s Old City without being verbally abused or even spat at by some of the more extreme Jewish settlers from the settlements. Over the years, Christian clergy representing various strands of the faith present in Jerusalem have met with the Israeli Foreign Ministry to discuss the increasing verbal and physical harassment of their co-religionists.
According to the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem there have been a number of complaints from churches that ultra-Orthodox Jews in the religious neighbourhood of Mea She’arim and other parts of Jerusalem have been abusive and even violent towards Christian clerics since the 1967 occupation began. Examples of the harassment include spitting, curses hurled at nuns and monks, a dead cat thrown into a church courtyard, anti-Christian slogans sprayed on walls and stone throwing. There have also been arson attacks on Christian places of worship accompanied by racist, anti-Christian graffiti.
Two thousand years of Christian tradition, that includes the procession of pilgrims from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, have been disrupted due to Israel’s isolation and illegal annexation of occupied East Jerusalem. Indeed, Israel’s military occupation and annexation has turned Jerusalem into a place where joy and freedom are in short supply.
While foreign Christians are more or less able to enter occupied Jerusalem freely, the indigenous Palestinian Christians are forbidden from travelling to the Holy City without military permits. That has been the case for most Palestinians since 1990.
Jerusalem has a history of being a city shared among the religions but that is no longer true, as Palestinian Muslims and Christians face restrictions on access and worship. Israel has set up an institutionalised system of checkpoints, permits and barriers to limit the movement of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who wish to enter religious sites for acts of worship. While their Christian friends face challenges entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the heart of the Old City, the Palestinian Muslims face similar hurdles trying to attend prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque. Jewish settlers, however, are granted almost free access — with the protection of the security forces — in a clear example of Israeli discrimination and repression that is concentrated in Jerusalem.
Such discriminatory illegal practices are reflective of the wider Israeli violations of international and humanitarian law, which are turning Jerusalem into a blessed city contaminated by persecution and hatred. Israel’s crimes against Palestinians of all faiths are deplorable and our silence in the West is unforgiveable. Palestinian Christians are not alone in their suffering this Easter, or at any other time; we all need to let them know that.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.