"Our presence in Jerusalem is under threat,” stated the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, on Orthodox Christmas, warning that extremist Israeli settler groups were attempting to drive Palestinian Christians from Jerusalem’s Old City.
Although this statement caught some attention, the repeated cries for help from Palestinian Christians have been ignored in the West, especially in Western media, which often neglects the existence of the Palestinian Christian community altogether.
Frequent attacks on Palestinian Christians, worshippers, churches and the religious leadership persist in Jerusalem practically uncovered in Western media. But how can it be that in one of the most important religious cities on earth attacks on Christians are going on under-reported and sometimes ignored in their entirety?
In May of last year, prior to the 11-Day assault on the Gaza Strip, videos and news of Israeli forces raiding the al-Aqsa Mosque compound and attacking worshippers while they prayed during Ramadan caused much controversy.
What is often left out of this story is that, at the same time, Palestinian Christians were also attacked, obstructed from accessing their holy site to pray and brutally arrested at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem during Orthodox Easter.
In fact, Israeli settler attacks on Palestinians in East Jerusalem have been on the rise, especially through 2021, leading United Nations experts to sound the alarm on the issue.
In December 2020, an extremist Israeli settler from the illegal settlement of Gilo attempted to burn down the Gethsemane Church in Jerusalem, storming the site, pouring gasoline all over it and lighting part of it on fire, before being tackled and detained by Palestinian security guards.
This terrorist attack, which could have burned down the church where some Christians believe Jesus prayed after the Last Supper, received little attention in Western press. Wadie Abunassar, a spokesman for the local clergy at the time, said that the attacker had “racist motives”.
Last year, in November, an Israeli settler spat on the Armenian Church in East Jerusalem, brazenly posing for the CCTV cameras to send a message of hate. This was a familiar scene to many Palestinian Christians, who have for years complained about racist verbal and physical abuse.
Also in May, two Palestinian Priests, on their way to pray at the church of the Holy Sepulchre, were ambushed and attacked by extremist Israeli settlers, who beat them so violently that they needed to be hospitalised.
Palestinian Christians and Muslims have struggled together against Zionism and settler colonial aggression since the time of the British Mandate. As Israeli historian Ilan Pappe points out in his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Christians who were offered to remain in their villages during the Nakba chose to stand with their Muslim neighbours, rather than opt to stay and betray their fellow Palestinians.
This is often hidden from the mainstream Western narrative on Palestine, which seeks to portray the Palestinian issue as a complex “clash of civilisations” in which Muslims are pitted against Jews.
Evidently, the fact that the Palestinian Christian community have produced some of the most prominent resistance figures to Israeli occupation poses a serious problem to this incorrect and propagandistic framing. Israeli propagandists fear that if the persecution of Christians in the Holy Land is revealed, it has the potential to turn many in the West against Israel.
In 1931, the Christian population of Jerusalem numbered at roughly the same as the Muslim population: 19,335 Christians to 19,894 Muslims. This quickly changed with the initiation of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine between 1947 and 1949, as more than 85% of the Palestinian people were expelled from their homeland.
Today, the Palestinian Christian population in Jerusalem sits at just over 12,600, comprising just 4% of the city’s Palestinian population, according to official Israeli data published in 2018.
The Christian population in Jerusalem has the highest average age, as many throughout the years chose to migrate elsewhere in order to escape persecution and seek a better life.
Prior to 1948, the Palestinian population of West Jerusalem, before it was illegally taken over by Zionist militia forces, sat at around 28,000. Many of these Palestinians were Christians and represented one of the most prosperous communities in the entire Middle East, but this was ruined when the Zionist militias drove the Palestinians out of their homes, encircling those who remained in an iron gated facility and handing out the abandoned homes to Israeli settlers.
In fact, former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir lived in the home built by and then stolen from a Palestinian Christian family in Talbiya, Jerusalem. It was whilst living in this stolen, originally Christian, home that Meir would make her infamous “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people” remark.
Now, Palestinian Christians are in the same predicament as Muslims in the city. They too are unable to receive permits to build new properties and are threatened with expulsion from their homes based on their ethnicity.
Father Francesco Patton of the Catholic Church in Jerusalem said in December that the lives of Christians in the Holy City have been made “unbearable by radical local [Israeli] groups with extremist ideologies,” adding that, “It seems that their aim is to free the Old City of Jerusalem from its Christian presence, even the Christian quarter”.
Despite attempts to diminish their existence, Palestinian Christians been at the forefront of not only Palestinian culture, art and music, but also politics.
In fact, one of the most celebrated Palestinian armed struggle leaders was a Palestinian Christian named George Habash, who started the Arab Nationalist Movement and later the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), both considered terrorist groups by Israel.
For years now, Palestinian Christians and their leadership have been sounding the alarm on the threat posed by Israeli settlers and Israeli official state policy to their community.
The vandalism, violent settler assaults, restrictions on access to Holy Sites, attempts to burn down churches, along with a long list of other threats posed to the community has made for a toxic environment that is incentivising many to leave the city.
In large part, the reason for such international apathy when it comes to the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem comes down to a lack of media coverage and the fact that most of the international community is just unaware that there is anything going on at all.
Robert Inlakesh is a political analyst, journalist and documentary filmmaker currently based in London, UK. He has reported from and lived in the occupied Palestinian territories and has worked with RT, Mint Press, MEMO, Quds News, TRT, Al-Mayadeen English and more.
Follow him on Twitter: @falasteen47
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