Jerusalem church leader says Israeli extremists threaten Christian presence in city

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© Reuters. Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem arrives at the Church of the Nativity according to the Orthodox calendar to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on January 6, 2022. Photo taken on January 6, 2022. R

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Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem has accused Israeli militant groups of threatening the presence of Christians in the holy city, which Israeli officials say is unfounded.

In an op-ed for The Times of London on Saturday, his Blessed Theophilus III said he believed the aim was to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem’s Old City, which is home to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. the holy place.

Israel occupied East Jerusalem, including the Old City, as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war. It annexed East Jerusalem after the war, a move that did not win international recognition.

“Our presence in Jerusalem is threatened,” the patriarch wrote in the article, published a day after the Greek Orthodox Church celebrated Christmas.

“Our churches are threatened by radical fringe groups in Israel. The Christian community in Jerusalem is suffering tremendously at the hands of these Zionist extremists,” he said.

“Our brothers and sisters are victims of hate crimes. Our churches are regularly desecrated and vandalized. Our clergy is constantly intimidated.”

By listing the extremists as Israelis, Diophilos’ criticism was more personal and sharper than the collective statements made by other church leaders in Jerusalem before Christmas.

Their statement spoke of “frequent and persistent attacks by fringe militant groups” but did not identify them as Israelis.

A State Department report on religious freedom around the world released last year said Christian clerics and pilgrims continued to report incidents of harassment or spitting by ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem.

For some time now, church groups have reported attacks that have damaged places of worship in the city. Theophilos did not name any militant groups or cite specific incidents. He did not provide evidence that they were Israelis or that their goal was to drive Christians out of the city.

Citing a Dec. 22 statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an Israeli official on Sunday refuted the early church leaders’ claims, saying the reality of Christians was nothing like what the patriarch described.

“Since its inception, the State of Israel has been committed to freedom of religion and worship for all religions, as well as ensuring freedom of access to the Holy Land,” said a statement from Israel’s foreign ministry.

“The statement by the leaders of the Jerusalem church is particularly outrageous given their silence on the plight of many of the discriminated and persecuted Christian communities in the Middle East.”

Theophilos said in his column that the radicals he criticized “do not represent the state of Israel or the Jewish people” and called for Jerusalem to continue to be a “mosaic community” of diverse Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

(This story corrected adding deleted words to the title.)

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