“Our churches are threatened by Israeli radical fringe groups,” wrote Patriarch Theophilos III in a column published in last Saturday’s British daily, The Times. “At the hands of these Zionist extremists,” Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch said, “the Christian community in Jerusalem is suffering greatly.”
Theophilos charged that a rising number of assaults against Christians and church buildings are an attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem’s Old City, home to Christians, Jews and Muslims and their holy sites.
“Our brothers and sisters are the victims of hate crimes,” he wrote.
The column appeared January 8, the day after Greek Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas.
According to Orthodox Times, the Patriarch had attended a Christmas Eve dinner in Bethlehem during which he gave a speech describing an increase in verbal and physical assaults on Christians committed by Israeli radical groups who “are committing their crimes in a deliberate attempt to expel Christians from Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.”
In the speech, Theophilos pointed to assaults against the Christian presence “especially in Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem, the entrance of pilgrims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the various monasteries and churches of the Old City, in addition to the actions of distorting the cultural and historical identity of the area of the New Gate.”
In both his Christmas Eve speech and The Times article, Theophilos took a step beyond a December 13 statement issued by thirteen Christian leaders and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem. That statement had expressed the leaders “grave concern” that the Israeli government’s commitment to provide a safe home for Christians in the Holy Land “is betrayed by the failure of local politicians, officials and law enforcement agencies to curb the activities of radical groups who regularly intimidate local Christians, assault priests and clergy, and desecrate Holy sites and church properties.”
Theopholis identified the radical groups as Israeli, as Zionist extremists.
On Sunday, Israeli officials rejected Theophilos’ accusations as baseless and pointed to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press release issued on December 22 which chastised an earlier statement by church leaders. The Israeli government’s press release claims, “the Christian population in Israel – including in Jerusalem – enjoys full freedom of religion and of worship, is constantly growing, and is part of the unique fabric of Israeli society,” and wished “all Christians in the Holy Land and across the world a Merry Christmas and a happy new year!”
In his Christmas Eve speech, delivered in Arabic, Patriarch Theophilos said, “We raise our voice loudly during this time of the year to confirm that the Holy Land is not only the land of the birth of Christ, but the land of the birth of Christianity which then was launched to the whole world. The entire Christian world is responsible for the survival of Christians in our beloved Holy Land and the Middle East in general. We affirm our demand to preserve… the city’s mosaic and diversity so that Jerusalem would be the spiritual center of the three monotheistic religions.”