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April 5, 2023 8:41 am

Christians Face Increase in Attacks by Jewish Extremists in Jerusalem

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Family and friends attend the funeral of Eliyahu David Kay at a cemetary in Jerusalem November 22, 2021. Picture taken with a drone. REUTERS/Ilan Rosenberg

i24 News – There has been an increase in the number of violent incidents against Christian communities in Jerusalem this year: Racist slurs in the Armenian quarter, a gang of religious Jewish teens throwing chairs at a Christian restaurant, violence directed at a cemetery. These are just some of the incidents which have Church leaders alarmed.

In January, two Jewish teenagers, aged 14 and 18, entered the historic Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion and desecrated 28 gravestones. Surveillance footage caught their actions. They were identified by police and indicted for vandalism carried out for racist reasons.

The graveyard, where influential personalities from Jerusalem’s more than 100-year-old Anglican community lie buried, has seen violent harassment before. But what happened in January, says David Pileggi, the rector of the Anglican Evangelical Christ Church, has a wider political background that’s connected to the new right-wing government in Israel.

“I think it’s obvious that a small minority here in Jerusalem or throughout Israel have an ax to grind against the Christian community and think that somehow we are polluting the land of Israel with our presence,” he told i24NEWS.

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“They have ministers in the government that have certainly winked at such people when they have committed illegal acts. I don’t know if there is any green light directly given by those in positions of power, but there is a feeling among them that ‘the government is with us’ and there are not enough consequences if we commit crime.”

Pileggi holds Israeli authorities responsible for condemning religious extremism coming from the margins of the Jewish community. He thinks adding classes about Christianity in school curricula could foster better understanding. And the enforcement of the law.

“Overall, while there is some goodwill toward the Christian community, there is a huge amount of ignorance. Most Israelis have no idea what’s going on here. I think it’s essential, not just for us but for the state of Israel and the rule of law in this country, to have a crackdown on this kind of extremism. Because it’s not just about us, it’s about all minorities.”

Those whose task it is to enforce exactly that are the police. They say they are in constant contact with Christian leaders.

“From what I have heard from the community leaders themselves is that the relationship is very good with the police force here, with the police commanders here. They know we are spread throughout the city here. During this month where there are many holidays together, there is an influx of thousands of police throughout the city and they are not just there to protect the visitors but also the people who live here,” Israel Police spokesperson Dean Elsdunne notes.

But there are some who have a different impression. Abbot Nikodemus Schnabel from the Dormition Abbey, on Mount Zion, a few hundred meters from the Anglican cemetery, has faced many attacks directed again him personally as he walks through the streets. His monastery too has been attacked. In 2015, a serious arson attack on the sister abbey in Tabgha in the Galilee destroyed parts of the church compound. Several people were injured and had to be hospitalized.

The attacker, a young Jewish extremist from an unauthorized settlement outpost in the West Bank associated with the “hilltop youth“ group, was defended by then-attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is now the National Security Minister in the current Israeli government.

The hilltop youth are considered a radical group of youngsters who commit “price tag” acts of violence and settle illegal outposts in the West Bank, and resent any law enforcement by the state of Israel. To Abbot Schnabel this indicates a structural problem:

“The current government makes a big difference, if you look at the increase of attacks in 2023, how many anti-Christian attacks in Jerusalem, the frequency of how I face personal attacks, it’s exploding. But for me, the question is if it’s intelligent and wise to ignore this problem because this problem is growing and the fruits could be horrible,” he believes.

Schnabel says the Dormition Abbey also faces anti-Christian graffiti, damaged tires, and smashed windows. Schnabel came to the holy city from Germany twenty years ago. The unique religious diversity and the great relations with and admiration for other faiths is what makes him stay. Mount Zion houses the tomb of King David, as well as several nationalist orthodox institutions and communities.

But harassment happens elsewhere in Jerusalem as well. Schnabel says that when walking around in the Old City, he is spat on by passers-by, members of extremist fringe groups of the Jewish community.

“The people who spit on me I know very well, we come back to these right-wing national religious youngsters very often. It’s a daily reality these days, I had visitors, they were in shock. Because they spat on me and I did not react to it. Because this is a reality, especially here in the Jewish quarter in the Old City, it’s a little like a no-go area.”

Schnabel says he doesn’t report many of these incidents to the police anymore as, when he did file a complaint, he was often told that surveillance cameras were broken and the perpetrators couldn’t be identified.

He senses a lack of motivation to investigate crimes by the extremist Jewish community. The Israeli Police counters that it follows any complaint, irrespective of who the alleged perpetrators are.

“Anybody who spits on another person, it’s a formal assault and the police will handle them accordingly. Whether it’s through cameras or detectors walking through the city or different measures to keep the community safe here in the old city,” Police spokesperson Ellesdunne asserts.

“When people feel that they are under a certain threat, we want these people to report to the police so we can open the case and act accordingly. We don’t want this to happen in our backyard.”

Both Abbot Schnabel and Reverent Pileggi say they would like to see senior Israeli political figures condemn attacks, like the recent one against the Anglican cemetery, and pay solidarity visits to actively support the Christian communities.

Christian church leaders are concerned that extremism might grow as perpetrators might feel protected by government figures. They say that Israeli society should be aware. The police, on the other hand, say they are doing everything to safeguard the Christian community against any kind of attacks, especially in Jerusalem. Both sides now hope for calm during the upcoming Easter holidays.

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