Christians in the Holy Land are feeling increasingly threatened by the growing violence and extremism of Israel’s far right, which is emboldened by an ultranationalist government that promotes Jewish supremacy.
In recent months, several incidents of vandalism, harassment and assault against Christian sites and individuals have been reported, raising concerns among church leaders and Christian activists about the safety and freedom of worship of their community.
One of the most shocking attacks occurred on February 2, when a man toppled and smashed a 10-foot statue of Jesus at the Church of the Flagellation in Jerusalem’s Old City, along the path where Jesus is said to have carried his cross on the way to his crucifixion. The man, who was arrested at the scene, was identified as a U.S. citizen with Jewish ritual tassels under his clothes. He reportedly said he wanted to destroy all the statues and idols in Jerusalem.
Brother Matteo Munari, a Franciscan friar who witnessed the attack, said he felt sad for the man, who he believed was influenced by a violent ideology. “The problem probably was not the man himself, but who instructed him to think in this violent way,” Munari told NBC News.
The Church of the Flagellation was not the only target of vandalism. In January, graffiti reading “Death to Christians” and “Jesus is a son of a whore” was sprayed on the walls of the Dormition Abbey, a Benedictine monastery near Jerusalem’s Zion Gate. The same month, another church in Jerusalem was defaced with graffiti saying “Christians to Hell” and “May his name be obliterated” – a phrase usually reserved for enemies of Judaism.
These attacks are part of a broader trend of hate crimes committed by Jewish extremists against non-Jews in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. According to the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, there were 295 incidents of ideologically motivated violence by Israeli civilians against Palestinians in 2022, an increase of 49 percent from 2021. These incidents included arson, stone-throwing, physical assault and damage to property.
The perpetrators of these crimes are often young settlers or ultra-Orthodox Jews who adhere to a radical interpretation of Judaism that views non-Jews as inferior or enemies. They are also influenced by the political rhetoric of Israel’s far-right parties, which have gained more power and influence under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government.
Netanyahu has relied on the support of these parties to stay in power amid corruption charges and political deadlock. In exchange, he has granted them concessions that undermine the rights and interests of non-Jewish minorities in Israel, such as passing the controversial Nation-State Law in 2018 that declared Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and downgraded Arabic from an official language to a special status.
Netanyahu has also failed to crack down on the hate crimes committed by his allies’ supporters, creating a sense of impunity for the attackers. According to Yesh Din, only nine percent of investigations into ideologically motivated crimes against Palestinians by Israelis resulted in indictments in 2022. The rate of prosecution for attacks against Christians is even lower, as many cases are closed due to lack of evidence or interest.
The Christian community in Israel and the occupied territories, which numbers about 177,000 people or two percent of the population, has expressed its frustration and fear over the rising attacks and the lack of protection from the authorities. Some Christian leaders have also accused Israel of trying to erase their presence and heritage from the Holy Land.
Dimitri Diliani, head of the Palestinian National Christian Coalition, said he felt “more threatened” now by “Israeli policies than any other time”. “Staying here and protecting our heritage is becoming more difficult,” he said.
Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem who holds authority over Catholic churches in Cyprus, Jordan, Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza, said he was surprised when Pope Francis elevated him to the rank of cardinal last month. He interpreted it as “a sign of attention from the Church of Rome towards the Mother Church, the Church of Jerusalem”.
The nomination, which was announced after Pope Francis condemned the Israeli military raid in Jenin that killed 12 Palestinians and damaged a Latin church in July, was seen as a clear statement by the Pope against rising Israeli violence in the Holy Land. It was also the first time that the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem was made a cardinal since 1847.
Pizzaballa said he hoped his new role would help him raise awareness about the plight of Christians in Israel and Palestine. “We need more solidarity from our brothers and sisters around the world,” he said.