It too often falls between the cracks of the Palestine debate that the land squabbles in the holy land are not a two-way religious dilemma. As Patriarch Theophilos III put it in a recent controversial column for the Guardian, “One group that has always been a pillar of society in the Holy Land – Christians – seems to have been rendered invisible in this standoff.”
The piece was a rare one in British discourse; it highlighted the fact that “radical [Jewish] settlers” are a threat to Palestinian Christians, and not just Palestinian Muslims. It was an intervention that for certain sought to exculpate his own possible role, and that of his Palestinian Orthodox church, quixotically led by Greeks, in surrendering too much land too often, and often in secret, to Israeli radicals.
This is a process that has gone on for decades. The latest scandal, regarding hotels near the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, may or may not be the fault of the Patriarch. He says that a recent secret sale was authorised illicitly by a church official acting outside his purview.
It is relatively immaterial. He is in general correct; anti-Christian prejudice in the current Israeli parliament, the Knesset, needs to be addressed, and more needs to be done to raise awareness of it in the West.
Israel’s Jewish settlers – although concerned with tiny scraps of land in theory — are a threat to everyone; not just in Jerusalem and the West Bank, but everywhere. Settlers are a threat to Israeli citizens who are targeted by the most extreme critics of the settlements. They are a threat to reasonable Zionists, whose credibility is besmirched on the international stage by their country’s association with militarist expansionism, rather than coexistence between the followers of three different religions sharing a holy land. Settlers are also a threat to any neighbourhood in the world where Muslims, Christians and Jews must live alongside each other peacefully.
This is not, of course, a justification of any terrorist attacks, but it is naïve to presume that even the most minuscule of property scandals in Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza – let alone wholesale land theft — will not have a global impact if the land is seen to be shifting unfairly between Muslims, Christians and Jews. Over two billion Christians, fourteen million Jews and more than a billion Muslims care passionately about Jerusalem. Reducing tensions there can have a disproportionate impact on the reduction of tensions everywhere.
A key problem for Christian leaders in Israel today is the proposed “church lands” bill, to which forty members of the Knesset have put their names. It would restrict the rights of Christian churches to “deal independently with their own land,” says Theophilos III. His view is straightforward and accurate, and has been supported by the Coptic, Armenian, Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches, as well as a host of British Christian leaders.
Curiously, I have not yet detected an iota of sympathy for Christians in Jerusalem from the Israeli right-wing’s traditional supporters in London. Many of these ultra-Zionists also profess anti-Muslim views; furthermore, they often concern themselves with Christian persecution elsewhere in the region, as well as the wider world. Not, though, in Jerusalem it seems, presumably because the persecutors are Jewish.
The late, great Anglo-Austrian publisher Lord George Weidenfeld, escaped from Austria just before the Holocaust; he was an adviser to Chaim Weizmann, the first President of Israel. He was also the man who inspired Michael Gove to write his paean to the Israeli right, Celsius 7/7, which is distributed as a paperback to every new member of the Conservative Friends of Israel lobby group.
In July 2015, however, Weidenfeld faced criticism for setting up a fund for Syrian refugees, which was conditional upon only Christians receiving assistance. This twinning of ardent support for expansionist Zionism with privileging the rights of Christians over Muslims wherever possible, is surprisingly common amongst supporters of hard-line Israeli positions.
In another example of selective angst, in December 2014 right-winger Douglas Murray asked “Why are we abandoning the Middle East’s Christians to ISIS?” Murray is a neoconservative and a professional activist for the current Israeli government and state.
It was a tawdry claim given that British Special Forces were at that time preparing to deploy in the less-than-pleasant suburbs of Raqqa, Fallujah or Mosul, specifically to dislodge Daesh. Many had been fighting there for months already. Murray, I suspect, wanted to be alarmist about Christians being persecuted simply because he wanted Muslims to look bad. It is a theme he returns to frequently. Indeed, he has even travelled to northern Nigeria to report on Christians being persecuted by Boko Haram.
The reality is that figures like Murray, a Christian atheist, and Gove, an outspoken Anglican, may indeed be vociferous about protecting Christians when they are threatened by Muslims, and when it suits their right-wing agenda. When the persecutors of Christians are from a Jewish background, though, and are into stealing Palestinian land in Jerusalem, the Murrays and Goves of this world fall silent.
The persecution of Christians in the Middle East is getting worse, and it is becoming more urgent to do something about it. A century ago, one in five of the people in the Middle East was a Christian. In the past 15 years, the number of Christians there has fallen; they are now significantly less than ten per cent, some say as low as four per cent.
It goes without saying that there is little direct equivalence between the SAS having to rescue Christians in Syria from head-chopping maniacs, and land disputes playing out in charged but generally civilised Israeli courts. The two do seem anodyne in comparison, but what is happening to Palestinian Christians in East Jerusalem at the hands of Jewish settlers is just as important as what is happening to Christians at the hands of Daesh.
The ridiculous aspect of the Patriarch row is that certain Palestinian activists are amongst his fiercest critics, exemplified by the mob that surrounded his car recently chanting “traitor, traitor” because he is accused of selling church land to the Israeli settlers behind their back. Those attacking the Christian official are allowing themselves to be divided and ruled by the Israeli state.
The reality is that citizenship of Israel – which confers the right to live in Jerusalem — is available to anyone of a Jewish background who has grown up in Kiev, Shanghai or Minnesota, does not speak Hebrew, and has never visited Israel before. It is not available to people of the other two faiths prominent in the city. I have no right as someone of a Christian background to go and live in my holy city, and nor do Muslims.
In fact, Christian and Muslim Arabs who have been born and brought up in Jerusalem can, under Israeli law, actually lose the right to live in their own homeland if they are out of the city for more than eight years. This is not the case with Jews, no matter where they were born. Those throwing rocks at the Patriarch were, therefore, throwing them at a fellow victim of Israeli policies.
In defence of the right-wing Israeli position, there are of course still ‘”Christian states”, the United Kingdom being one of them. Our monarch is still constitutionally responsible for defending “the Faith”; that is, Anglican Christianity.
There will soon come an awkward juncture where we will have to question whether Israel as a self-declared “Jewish state” can continue. In the even nominally-Christian state of Britain there are no immigration laws that discriminate over visiting or living here based on religion or ethnicity, as there are in Israel. Property rights in London don’t change depending on if you go to church on Sunday or not.
In Jerusalem, Israel does discriminate. It is time for Christians in Britain and elsewhere to realise that their co-religionists are threatened by Israeli settlers, and to speak out against persecution not just by some Muslims in the Middle East, but by some Jews too. It is an emotive and tricky topic, but it needs to be tackled.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.