The most senior Christian leader in the Holy Land has accused hardline Jewish settlers of trying to intimidate clergy in Jerusalem’s Old City and acquire church-owned property in an attempt to weaken the Christians’ presence there.
In an interview with the Guardian, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, said: “Today the Church faces a most severe threat at the hands of certain settler groups. The settlers are persistent in their attempts to erode the presence of the Christian community in Jerusalem.”
He continued: “These radical settler groups are highly organised. Over the last years we have witnessed the desecration and vandalism of an unprecedented number of churches and holy sites and receive growing numbers of reports from priests and local worshippers who have been assaulted and attacked.”
In addition, the Church has expressed concerns about attempts by settlers to buy up its properties. The Greek Orthodox Church has accused the settler organisation Ateret Cohanim of being behind the purchase of several strategically significant properties. The organisation has been accused of using third parties to buy up properties.
A spokesman for the group rejected the accusation that “radical settlers” were verbally abusing clergy, and denied that it wanted Christians gone from the Old City, saying: “Ateret Cohanim believes in coexistence with Christians and Muslims alike … Why couldn’t or shouldn’t Jews purchase and live in predominantly Arab neighbourhoods?”
Last September the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the Patriarchate had been the target of protests over the sale of some of its properties at low prices to developers.
A church-lands bill, which would permit the Israeli government to expropriate land in Jerusalem sold by churches in recent years to private property firms, was met with resistance by the churches and the bill was postponed after large-scale protests.
Church leaders said the bill was another move to weaken the Christian presence in the city, and that they needed to sell property to pay long-standing debts.
In December the Greek Orthodox Patriarch was in the UK to rally support against the bill, saying it would limit the property rights of churches.
The Patriarch’s comments that Christians in Jerusalem are under threat from settlers echo those made in March by the Catholic prior of Jerusalem’s Abbey of the Dormition, on Mount Zion, which has been targeted by vandals several times. Fr Nikodemus Schnabel said: “There are those who would like to see a decrease in Christians … and there are groups who declare that Israel belongs to the Jews and that all non-Jews should leave.”