THE Board of Deputies of British Jews has reacted angrily to a joint newspaper article by the Archbishops of Canterbury and Jerusalem which warns of a concerted effort by radical groups to drive Christians from the Holy Land. It could divide communities, the Board’s president, Marie van der Zyl, says.
The Archbishops’ article, published in The Sunday Times, was in response to an urgent plea to the political authorities from the Patriarchs and heads of local churches in Jerusalem to deal with physical and verbal abuse against clergy; attacks on Christian churches; the regular vandalising and desecration of holy sites; and the ongoing intimidation of local Christians (News, 17 December).
The leaders acknowledge the declared commitment of the Israeli government to “uphold a safe and secure home for Christians in the Holy Land and to preserve the Christian community as an integral part of the tapestry of the local community”, as shown by its facilitating the visit of millions of Christian pilgrims to the holy sites.
But that commitment is betrayed, they say, by the failure of local politicians, officials, and law enforcement agencies to curb the activities of radical groups. The article does not specify whether these groups are Israeli or Palestinian, Jewish or Muslim.
While the principle of protecting the spiritual and cultural character of Jerusalem’s distinct and historic quarters is already recognised in Israeli law, right-wing Israeli groups continued to acquire strategic property in the Christian Quarter, with the aim of “dramatically decreasing” the Christian presence and further disrupting the historic pilgrim routes between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
The Patriarchs and heads of local churches in Jerusalem also point out that Christian pilgrimage contributes $3 billion to the Israeli economy, and that the local Christian community provides a disproportionate amount of educational, health, and humanitarian services in communities throughout Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. They request urgent dialogue to deal with the challenges and to discuss the creation of a special Christian cultural and heritage zone.
Reflecting that the Christian population in the Holy Land has fallen to two per cent in the past century, with fewer than 2000 Christians left in the Old City of Jerusalem, the Archbishops state: “This is the land that 2.5 billion Christians worldwide recognise as the birthplace of the Church.
“Yet Christians, who have been a continuous presence there for over 2000 years, are too often obscured and even forgotten beneath the competing perceptions of the geopolitics of the Middle East. The Christian presence punches above the weight of its numbers.”
The growth of settler communities, and travel restrictions brought about by the Separation Wall, have deepened the isolation of Christian villages, they say, and curtailed economic and social possibilities. They describe the steady stream of Palestinian Christians leaving the Holy Land as a “historic tragedy” unfolding in real time, but a trend that can be reversed if action is taken fast.
They continue: “The first Christmas tells us of God coming into our world among ordinary lives of human struggle. It foregrounds a refugee family, against the backdrop of a genocide of infants. There’s not much about lullabies and and cuddly farm animals.”
The Board of Deputies president, Ms van der Zyl, agreed that assaults carried out by extremists were unacceptable. But she suggested that there were “more complex reasons” for the decline of the Christian community than those the Archbishops had raised, which “appeared to attribute this decline to Jewish settlers and the barrier built to halt the wave of terror attacks of the Second Intifada”.
The Board was “especially troubled” by the Archbishops’ description of “the first Christmas”, which allowed for the possibility of “comparison to current events. In particular, I noted your reference to ‘the backdrop of a genocide of infants’: a clear reference to the narrative of the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew.
“I found this reference troubling because of the potential linkage which could be made between Christianity, Jews, and the killing of children in any current context. This is particularly distressing because I know that you have advocated for policies that support Jewish communal concerns. I fear that, rather than encouraging reasoned dialogue on the issues you raise, this may in fact divide communities.”
The Board asks for a meeting with the Archbishops to discuss their concerns and to seek a way forward. Lambeth Palace was asked for news of any proposed meeting.
The patron of the Friends of the Holy Land, Bishop Michael Langrish, reflected in a press release on a changed Christian landscape in which communities had declined and Christians departed, as “cold winds have blown out so many of the candles of their historic presence in the land of our faith’s birth. . .
“Candles of hope have spluttered briefly, and then extinguished, as one peace initiative after another has come to nought. The warm glow of faith has become harder to sustain amidst the demolition of houses, the shadows of a great dividing wall, the icy blast of restrictions on movement, and economic life.
“We stand and act in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ there, that, despite all the efforts to dim them, the candles of faith, hope, and love, all lit and sustained by the light of Christ, may continue to shine brightly into the darkness of poverty, frailty, insecurity, marginalisation, and hopelessness that grips so many in the Holy Land right now.”