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Jerusalem's Christian population sees steep decline: Church leader

Roman Catholic clergy hold candles as they circle the edicule during the Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday) Easter procession at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on 18 April 2019 [GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images]
Roman Catholic clergy at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on 18 April 2019 [GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images]

A church leader in Jerusalem has expressed concern over the steep decline of the holy city's Christian population over the years, Anadolu News Agency reports.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Wadih Abu Nassar, the spokesman for the Council of Heads of Catholic Churches in Jerusalem, said Christians constituted about 25 per cent of the population of Jerusalem in 1922. But the number has since fallen drastically to less than 1 per cent, he noted.

According to Israeli sources, the population of Jerusalem was 936,000 as of 2019. Jews made up 62 per cent of the city's population, with Palestinians making up the remaining 38 per cent.

Abu Nassar said the Christian population accounts for less than 10,000 of the total number of Jerusalemites.

He attributed the drop in the number of Christians to a combination of reasons, ranging from economic to political.

Abu Nassar said economic challenges have played a massive role in the decline of the Christian population in Jerusalem, with the coronavirus pandemic being the final blow that denied the city the income it earned from foreign tourists.

 Ambiguous political horizon

The church leader also blamed ambiguity in the political horizon for the declining numbers.

"The political situation is heading toward the unknown as there is no peace process and no prospect of a solution (on the Palestinian question) and, therefore, there is a kind of ambiguity that frightens many people, Christians and non-Christians alike," he said.

In 1993, the PLO and Israel signed the Oslo Accords which gave Palestinians a form of self-rule. Years of peace negotiations between the two sides, however, failed to achieve the Palestinian goal of establishing an independent state.

READ: Assad claims Israel aims to displace Christians throughout the Middle East

US-sponsored peace talks collapsed in 2014 over Israel's refusal to halt settlement building and release Palestinians imprisoned before 1993.

But, while all segments of the society are affected by political and economic upheavals, Abu Nassar believes that ethnic or religious minorities suffer the most.

They "are the weakest link, not necessarily because they are targeted, but because their presence in a state of constant instability makes some think about immigration," he said.

He said the declining number of Christians will disturb the demography of the city.

"This issue is worrying, because Jerusalem is indebted to the three religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and one of these religions is almost disappearing, and this is a matter of concern not only for Christians but also for non-Christians, and for every person who loves this pluralism in Jerusalem."

Jewish extremism

Abu Nassar has also blamed attacks by Jewish extremists on Palestinians and expansion of illegal settlements as another key reason behind the decline in Jerusalem's Christian population.

"There is an increase in illegal settlement activity in many neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem, and this is not a secret, and it targets many places, including some Christian holy sites," he said.

Abu Nassar slammed the Israeli authorities for not putting "enough effort" to hold the extremists accountable.

He pointed out that the heads of churches expressed concern about the existence of some kind of threat to Christians in Jerusalem and their holy places.

Last December, the heads of Christian churches in Jerusalem warned in a statement that Christians in the holy city "have become the targets of frequent and persistent attacks by extremist (Jewish) groups", especially since 2012.

READ: Israel Foreign Minister, Jordan's King discuss Jerusalem tensions

It listed the attacks as ranging from "countless physical and verbal attacks on priests and other clergy, attacks on Christian churches, with holy sites regularly vandalised and desecrated, and constant intimidation of local Christians simply seeking to worship freely and go about their daily lives."

They described the attacks as "tactics" employed by the "extremist groups in a systematic attempt to push the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land."

The statement warned that the extremist groups seek to encroach Christian quarters through intimidation and other means.

In February, a plan was revealed to expropriate church land on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem to turn it into a national park.

However, the Israeli Ministry of Environment announced the freezing of the scheme after a strongly worded message from the heads of churches in Jerusalem.

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