New report warns of rising attacks on believers in Holy Land

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.(Photo: Getty/iStock)

A new report has warned that hostility towards Christians is on the rise in Israel, with the blame being put on a surge in the number of attacks on believers and church properties and a growing atmosphere of nationalism.

'Attacks on Christians in Israel and East Jerusalem', a report from the Jerusalem-based Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue, said that Christian leaders and experts on Christianity in Israel have warned that there is an increasing feeling of insecurity among Christians in the Holy Land that reflects a wider social and political trend, Christian Daily International reports.

"While hostility towards the Christian presence has been a longstanding occurrence in some local communities, it has now escalated to a broader and more severe phenomenon," the report said.

"As the Cardinal of Jerusalem, Pier Battista Pizzaballa, said regarding the spike in attacks, 'These people [the attackers] feel they are protected...that the cultural and political atmosphere now can justify, or tolerate, actions against Christians'."

According to the data collected in the report, Christian communities saw a significant increase in both the frequency and intensity of harassment in 2023, ranging from physical attacks on church property and individual Christians, to cases of verbal harassment, cemetery desecration, and instances of spitting on or in the direction of clergy and pilgrims.

"Spitting has been a known occurrence in religious life in Jerusalem for decades, but it has transformed from a covert act to perpetrators openly spitting at clergy, holy places, and even pilgrims, in broad daylight, before crowds and in the presence of security cameras," the report noted.

While spitting is considered a felony in Israel, with more severe penalties, including up to ten years in prison, if done for a racial or religious reason, victims are often unaware of the law and reluctant to report it. When they do, it is common for them to dismiss most reports as non-violent and irrelevant.

Other forms of assault have also become more common, including the use of pepper spray, and are often directed against those suspected of missionary work and attempting to convert Jews to Christianity. There is particular hostility directed towards evangelism by Orthodox Jews, with numerous accounts of harassment and intimidation against Christian workers that have led to attacks or ostracism from the community.

However, the report also notes that missionary activity is not illegal in Israel, saying that, "It is often wrongly believed that the practice is outlawed in Israel, while the only restrictions declare that it is illegal to proselytize to a person younger than 18 without the consent of both parents and to offer material benefit to potential converts while proselytizing."

Some Christian communities based near or in Jewish neighbourhoods, such as the Armenians in the Old City of Jerusalem, have experienced repeated attacks in the last the year.

"Based on compiled records of known attacks in previous years, 2023 also witnessed a notable increase in both severe property and physical assaults," the report said.

"The Polish monastery bordering Mea Shearim experienced various forms of harassment over several months...the abuses ceased only after the community began reporting to the Religious Freedom Data Center hotline...Nevertheless, instances of spitting, verbal harassment, and the throwing of objects and garbage into the compound from a nearby building persisted."

Christians are a minority group in Israel, making up just 1.9 per cent of the population, and three-quarters of those Christians come from Israel's Arab population.