April 10, 2023 | The Algemeiner

Members of the Clergy Politicize Holy Week in the Holy Land

Christians are flourishing in Israel, yet before Easter, some members of the clergy exploited the period of heightened religious emotion to level false accusations of systemic oppression against Israel. Meanwhile, others spread conspiracy theories that mirror the blood libel sermons taught about the Jews during Holy Week in previous centuries.

Palestinian Archbishop Atallah Hanna, of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, has called for a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea” — meaning a state that replaces Israel, and described Zionism as diabolical and having no connection to God’s word and the Holy Books.

Hanna’s words echo earlier claims by Palestinian clergy rejecting the Jewish connection to the land of Israel. In 2010, Reverend Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Lutheran Pastor in Bethlehem, said that his own lineage to King David and Jesus was greater than that of an Eastern European Jew: “… if you put King David, Jesus, and Netanyahu [together], you will get nothing, because Netanyahu comes from an East European tribe [the Khazars] who converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages.”

Similarly, the former Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, Riah Abu El-Assal, claimed: “We are the true Israel … No one can deny me the right to inherit the promises, and after all the promises [that] were first given to Abraham and Abraham is never spoken of in the Bible as a Jew.”

This kind of rhetoric tends to escalate during Holy Week, much in the way that Palestinian Islamic extremists distort the holy month of Ramadan, turning a time of spiritual contemplation into one of hate and aggression. This year, Holy Week and Ramadan overlapped, sharpening tensions.

This skewed narrative, advanced by activist clergy in Israel, overshadows the fact that Israel’s Christian communities are among the few in the Middle East that continue to grow and enjoy religious freedoms and a full range of political rights and civil liberties. These rights are due to Israel’s quasi constitutional Basic Laws and Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which guarantees these rights “irrespective of religion, race or sex.” This is true both in law and in practice.

In Israel, each religious group has autonomy to administer its own internal affairs, including maintaining religious councils and courts with authority over religious and personal status matters. The Israeli judiciary incorporates religious courts into its courts system, making it unique among nations with modern legal systems. Further, each religious court — or tribunal — has an independent administration and its own appellate system including legally-trained judges.

But the court system is not the only institution that caters to Israel’s diversity. The Israeli State school system provides unique schools and curricula, adapted to the communities and religion of the student body, whether religious or secular; Muslim, Christian, Druze, or Circassian.

Some Christian religious leaders in Israel have expressed concerns that the Christian community in the Holy Land is dwindling. While this may be true in the Palestinian territories, the Christian population inside of Israel proper has been steadily growing since 1950.

Moreover, according to a study by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, Christian citizens of Israel had lower unemployment rates than their Jewish counterparts, are more likely to pursue a higher education, and Christian women disproportionately seek advanced degrees in Israel.

While there has been an alarming uptick in crime targeting Christian clergy and holy sites over the past couple of years in Israel, accusations of a systemic attempt by the Israeli government or the Jewish Israeli majority to eradicate the Christians of Israel is misinformed at best, and deceitful at worst. These attacks have been perpetrated by fringe actors, both Muslim and Jewish, who seek to undermine the pluralistic nature of the State of Israel — a core value enshrined in Israeli law.

In fact, Israeli law goes to extensive lengths to deter and punish behavior that undermines the rights and dignity of religious minorities in the country. In a recent statement, the Israeli police reaffirmed their commitment to take “damage to religious institutions and sites very seriously. The police will continue to act with determination against violence and vandalism in the holy sites of all religions.” Cooperation between police and religious leaders is the best way to deal with these unfortunate attacks.

Christians everywhere deserve the freedom to celebrate Holy Week knowing the state will protect them. Israel can and must do better. However, it is also true that Holy Week celebrations in Israel would be impossible in many countries in Israel’s neighborhood and around the globe. Holy Week is a time to tell the story of persecuted Christians, but no one should mistake the distortions of a handful of Christian leaders for the truth about the Christian citizens of Israel.

Enia Krivine is the senior director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ (FDD) Israel Program and National Security Network. Shannon Walsh is the Associate Director of Programs for FDD’s National Security Network. Follow the authors on Twitter: @EKrivine and @ShannonSWalsh. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. 


Israel Palestinian Politics