Christians in the occupied Palestinian territories face the “threat of extinction” from “radical” Israeli groups, church leaders have warned in a startling message in the run up to Christmas. They have called for help from the worldwide Christian community of 2.3 billion people.
“In recent years, the lives of many Christians have been made unbearable by radical local groups with extremist ideologies,” said Francesco Patton, the Catholic Church’s Custos of the Holy Land. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he warned of the threat from Israeli extremists. “Despite two thousand years of faithful service, our presence is precarious and our future is at risk.”
Patton is also the guardian of the Christian religious sites in the Holy Land. “Where once we numbered 20 per cent of the population of Jerusalem, today the Christian community counts for less than 2 per cent,” he pointed out.
Prior to Israel’s creation in 1948, Palestinian Christians were the second largest religious community, making up more than eleven per cent of the total population. The waves of ethnic cleansing which the Palestinians call the Nakba (“Catastrophe”) has reduced their number to its present “extinction” level.
Israel’s violent capture, illegal annexation and military occupation of Jerusalem has accelerated the flight of Palestinian Christians from their country. Human rights groups have described Israel’s rule over the territory as a form of apartheid under which Christian Palestinians are also treated like second and third class citizens.
Patton explained that the lives of Christians have been made unbearable because radical Jewish groups seek “to free the Old City of Jerusalem from its Christian presence, even the Christian quarter.”
The targeting of the Palestinian Christians has increased at an alarming rate. “In the last years we suffered because of the desecration of our holy sites, the vandalisation of our churches, offences against our priests, monks and worshippers,” he said. “The frequency of these hate crimes leaves families and communities who have lived here for generations feeling unwelcome in their own homes.”
Patton said that the radical Israeli groups are “waging a war of attrition against a community with no desire to fight” before urging the global Christian community to aid Palestinian Christians facing the threat of extinction.
A similar message was delivered by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in an article for the Times co-authored with the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem, Hossam Naoum. In remarks that should ring alarm bells across the Christian world, the two leaders said that when you speak to Palestinian Christians in Jerusalem today, you will often hear them saying, “In 15 years’ time, there’ll be none of us left.”
Calling for followers to “pray for the Christians being driven from the Holy Land,” Welby and Naoum warned that, “In the birthplace of the church, worshippers are dwindling in the face of intimidation and discrimination.”
Details of a joint statement by Church leaders was mentioned in the Times piece, including the “sustained attacks by fringe radical groups” against Christians and “countless… physical and verbal assaults against priests and other clergy, and… Christian churches.”
The archbishops added that, “The growth of [Israeli] settler communities and travel restrictions brought about by the West Bank separation wall have deepened the isolation of Christian villages and curtailed economic and social possibilities.”
The remarks by the church leaders triggered a backlash from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which has called for a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury to discuss what they describe as “deeply troubling” passages in the Times article.