Tel Aviv (Israel)
From our correspondent
Wednesday January 4 in Jerusalem. Anglican Archbishop Hosam Naoum sadly strokes broken headstones in Mount Zion Protestant Cemetery. He came to show his solidarity after the desecration of 30 graves on New Year’s Day. The news and the footage from the CCTV cameras spread on social media. We see two suspects indulging in their sad business – they are both wearing the traditional dress of Orthodox Zionist Jews. It only took a few days for the Jerusalem police to identify and apprehend them. A good surprise for the Christian communities of the Holy City, and especially that on Mount Zion, which are regularly the subject of harassment from extremists.
They are never on a large scale but contribute to creating an atmosphere of insecurity. On Mount Zion, in particular, where Christianity and Judaism hardly cohabit. Attacks on Benedictine friars at Dormition Abbey, bullying of priests by hot-blooded Jewish youths, breaking and entering an Orthodox church are commonplace. And remain mostly unanswered. “Even if the police know very well who the perpetrators are…”, bitterly regrets the guardian of one of the cemeteries. The speed of these arrests is undoubtedly linked to the severity of the crime, to the evidence available, but also to the media coverage of these acts throughout the world. This could be partly due to the actions of the collective campaign launched by the leaders of the Churches of the Holy Land in 2021, specifically to raise the alarm about an endangered Christian presence in the Holy City. This unity is rare in a colorful Holy Land where rivalries between Christian denominations sometimes descend into tragicomic.
If the means made available to this campaign are not colossal – it relies on the work of volunteers –, it nevertheless seems to have succeeded in putting the Israeli authorities into a corner. On Sunday January 8, it was not the Anglican archbishop but the Greek-Orthodox patriarch, the driving force behind the collective effort, that the commissioner of the Jerusalem police went to see to announce the arrest. The photos of their conversation were immediately relayed by Israeli diplomacy. “The policy of the State of Israel has been very clear, since its foundation in 1948: freedom of religion must be safeguarded”, underlines Tania Berg-Refaeli, director of the department of religions at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She insists on the good health of the Christian community in Israel and the openness of state institutions to religious leaders: “They can have access to all levels of power and this dialogue is constant. In fact, the campaign of the Christian Churches, and its various actors, do not disavow the authority of the State of Israel. On the contrary, it is as partners that they want to remind the authorities of their obligations. The message is clear and intended to be neutral: Christian institutions recognize the Israeli authorities but demand that their freedom of worship and their presence in the cradle of the Christian religion be safeguarded.
This affair highlights a complex dichotomy: certainly the existence of Christian institutions, which are hundreds of years old, is not threatened. It is rather the future of the “living stones”, the Christian community itself, which worries. In Jerusalem, it hasn’t grown since the 1920s due to emigration, when Jewish and Muslim populations grew tenfold.
And while the arrests of youths who vandalized graves have been welcomed, questions remain. Two days before the desecration, police also accompanied members of the City of David Foundation (Elad in Hebrew) to take possession of land near the ancient Pool of Siloam. The sale of this land by the Orthodox patriarchate, and the expropriation of the Palestinian family who live there, for the benefit of Elad is disputed, being part of a corruption affair linked to the previous patriarch.
For the local Christians, it is a new episode in a process of “Judaization” – reinforcement of the Jewish presence – of the city, partly responsible for their exodus. And it could grow heavier under the new Israeli government which gives pride of place to the extreme right. “We fear that the attacks will increase, the spitting and the confrontations, assures the Anglican archbishop Hosam Naoum. We fear more hatred, more segregation, and that is what makes me the saddest for the future of Jerusalem. »