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Christians face harassment on Via Dolorosa

04 August 2023

Francis Martin reports from Jerusalem on a disturbing trend

Francis Martin/Church Times

The group, gathered at the Fourth Station of the Cross, in the courtyard of the Armenian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Sorrows

The group, gathered at the Fourth Station of the Cross, in the courtyard of the Armenian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Sorrows

PILGRIMS walking the Via Dolorosa through the Old City of Jerusalem expect to have to contend with the hustle and bustle of the narrow streets as they trace the route that Jesus took to his execution. But, on Sunday, a group of Church of England ordinands experienced an extra and distressing distraction, as they were spat at by a Hasidic Jewish boy.

Such incidents have become a more common occurrence over recent months, and have attracted condemnation by Jewish leaders, including some from Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities, as well as by the (Roman Catholic) Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

As the group of ordinands were gathered in prayer at the Fifth Station of the Cross, a teenage boy, wearing the black hat, coat, and gartel (belt) customary among Hasidic Jews, hawked and spat towards the ground. His phlegm landed on the leg of one of the ordinands standing at the back of the group.

The Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem, Canon Richard Sewell, who was leading the group but did not see the incident, said on Tuesday that, although the ordinand “did not feel frightened or deeply upset, I think it’s symptomatic of a growing problem in the city”.

On Wednesday of last week, the Latin Patriarch, Cardinal-designate Pierbattista Pizzaballa, told Vatican News that such harassment was not new, but had increased in recent months, and that the authorities in Israel were not doing enough to respond to the issue.

He said, however, that there were “reasons for hope, because these incidents have spurred strong reactions even from Jewish religious leaders in Israel: I believe that over time this awareness of the problem will bear fruit.”

This year, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau, and a former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, have written letters condemning the harassment of Christians in the country.

In a statement on12 July, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations condemned “recurrent expressions and demonstrations of intolerance in Israel perpetrated against Christians and Christian religious sites, such as spitting and desecration of graves and churches”.

Such responses were a “positive step but not enough”, the founding director of the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, Dr Faydra Shapiro, who is a senior fellow at the Philos Project, said.

On Tuesday, she told the Church Times that “anti-Christian harassment is undeniably and disturbingly on the rise,” and that more rabbis needed to condemn such actions, and to “instruct particularly their young yeshiva students that this kind of behaviour is not only bad manners, but forbidden.

“We also need to encourage Jews to remember that we are not living in 18th-century Poland, with all of its attendant vulnerability and fear. We are a free people in our sovereign nation. Let’s start acting like it. And remember that the first test of a democracy is how it treats minorities,” Dr Shapiro said.

She suggested that one of the motivations for the incidents of harassment was the “very difficult historical relationship” that Jews have had with Christianity, and that it was a relationship “that we still have a lot of anxiety about, particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world”.

In January, more than 30 graves in the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion, close to the walls of the Old City, were desecrated (News, 6 January). Later that month, the Times of Israel reported that two teenagers were facing charges in relation to the attack. CCTV footage showed the perpetrators in headwear and clothing associated with religious Jews.

Speaking about the spitting incident on Sunday, Canon Sewell said: “What’s important to note is that this is not an isolated incident. Priests, Franciscan monks, and other people who are identifiable by their clothing as Christians regularly find themselves being spat at by clearly religious Jews.

“I think what’s so concerning about this is that it appears that there is an impression among parts of the Jewish community that Christians are unwelcome in the city. By abusing them verbally or by spitting, they are creating an atmosphere of jeopardy and fear for many in the Christian community.

“When our churches and our cemeteries are also under attack, an incident like this, which may seem minor, actually is part of a bigger situation of deep unpleasantness and harassment that seems to be on the rise in the city of Jerusalem.

“We’re just looking to be protected like any others in the city: to have the same levels of protection from the authorities, from the police, that others would expect to have; and yet, all too often, these things don’t seem to be taken seriously.”

The spot where the incident on Sunday occurred, at the intersection of Haja’y and Al Alam streets, is marked with a bronze image of Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross for Jesus. The location is just yards from a corner at which heavily armed Israeli police routinely stand.

Late last year, a website for reporting assaults was set up. It publishes a log of incidents, including spitting, stone-throwing, and graffiti, which have taken place, most in Jerusalem or Haifa.

According to the log, after one spitting incident, at the Monastery of the Flagellation on the Via Dolorosa, the perpetrator was confronted, and “justified it by saying that the Church was responsible for the Inquisition where Jews were killed”.

Expanding on what is necessary for a reduction in harassment, Dr Shapiro said that “increased monitoring and stricter sentencing will help, but that’s an after-the-fact: the greater challenge is how to create a culture where such incidents are unacceptable.

“The only way to do that will be through education. I believe that if Israeli Jews could actually meet more Christians in Israel and take them out of this historic box of ‘Christian history’ and meet them more as individual people, that would be a real development. It’s easier to consider spitting on a nameless, faceless being who represents a category than it is on a human person.

“I also think it essential for our schools to educate beyond triumphal, powerful, European Christianity and show Jews a Christian experience that looks a lot like the Jewish experience: that of minority, vulnerable, persecuted Christians.”

Coptic and Armenian priests in Jerusalem were approached for comment, but declined to respond.

Asked what he would say to the boy if he had witnessed the incident, Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, a Canadian-American rabbi and scholar who now lives in Jerusalem, told the Church Times: “I’d say, ‘What are you doing? This is a human being: this is somebody else who is God’s creature.’”

Rabbi Frydman-Kohl, who divides his time between Toronto and Jerusalem and is Rabbi Emeritus of the Beth Tzedec Congregation, the largest conservative synagogue in Canada, suggested that the apparent rise in such incidents was connected to the current political situation in Israel — a view also expressed by Patriarch Pizzaballa in his interview with Vatican News.

The far-Right coalition government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu and containing several religious Zionist and Haredi political parties, has faced widespread protests against moves to reduce the power of the judiciary to strike down laws judged to be “unreasonable”.

Despite urging by President Biden — and other heads of state, including the figurehead President of Israel itself, Isaac Herzog — that the Israeli government consider a compromise position on the legislation, the first parts of the proposed changes were passed in the Knesset last week.

Rabbi Frydman-Kohl suggested that ultra-Orthodox Jews felt “emboldened” by the current government’s policies, which were seen as supportive of Haredi communities. “Everything intersects here,” he said.

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