Old Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (Flickr, 2009)
Old Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (Flickr)

Church leaders in the Middle East have voiced grave concerns at US President Donald Trump’s announcement that the US will recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city and move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

There are an estimated 200,000 Christians in the Holy Land, of whom around 50,000 live in the Palestinian Territories. Palestinian Arab Christian leaders say their needs are sometimes overlooked amid tensions between the larger communities of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims, some of whom practise an increasingly assertive form of Islam.

On Friday (8 December), a Palestinian man was killed by Israeli security forces, marking the first death following the fallout of Trump’s announcement. The number of dead now stands at four.

The day before, protestors had taken to the streets in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and at least 17 people were reported injured in clashes in the West Bank, mostly from tear gas and rubber bullets. Following Trump’s announcement, a new uprising, or ‘Intifada’, against Israel was called for by Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas – the de facto governing authority in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian Christians were reportedly among protestors in Bethlehem on the evening of 4 December who rejected the decision.

A group of 13 Jerusalem-based leaders of Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran Churches wrote an open letter to Trump, warning of “hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land” if the US moved away from recognising the current international status of the city, which includes sites considered sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. “Definitive peace … cannot be reached without Jerusalem being for all,” the letter, dated 6 December, said.

Pope Francis, who spoke to the Palestinian President Abu Mazen on Tuesday about the issue of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, said the following day: “Jerusalem is a unique city, sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims … and has a special vocation to peace. I pray to the Lord that this identity would be preserved and strengthened for the benefit of the Holy Land, the Middle East and the whole world, and that wisdom and prudence would prevail.”

Meanwhile, church leaders also warned that Trump’s decision could spark a backlash against Christians in neighbouring countries, where there is widespread support for the Palestinian cause and local Christians are sometimes targeted and accused of being too closely allied to the West, despite Christianity’s Middle Eastern roots.

In the wake of Trump’s announcement, the head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, confirmed he would not be meeting US Vice President Mike Pence during the latter’s visit to Cairo later this month. A spokesperson said the “US decision totally disregarded the sentiments of millions of Arab people”.

Meanwhile, Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, told Christianity Today that recognising Jerusalem “will create more tension in the region, and encourage extremists”.

And Philip Madanat, adjunct professor of sociology at Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, added: “There can always be surprises in the street, especially if economic frustration mixes with political outrage over Jerusalem… It just needs a spark.”

East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, was annexed by Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War, but Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem has until now not been recognised internationally, and countries have their embassies in Tel Aviv instead.