On the day before Christmas Eve, I stood in the Jaffa Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem with Issa Kassissieh, a Christian Arab and, as Jerusalem’s only Santa Claus, a local celebrity. We spent the day giving out Christmas trees, as the Jerusalem municipality has done for nearly a decade. The City of Jerusalem also outfitted streets with Christmas decorations and organised a Christmas market by the recently upgraded New Gate entrance to the Christian Quarter.
Last week on Easter Sunday, all of Jerusalem’s Christian denominations celebrated peacefully as they do every year. Hundreds of worshippers, locals and tourists, attended processions around the Old City of Jerusalem.
Over the past seven years, in particular, unprecedented resources have been channeled into the Old City and East Jerusalem to close the social gaps that had festered for years and to herald a new era of equal opportunity. This is why the recent attacks by Church leaders on Jerusalem are so surprising and deeply disappointing.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III, as well as other Christian leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury, are claiming that there is regular desecration and vandalism of Christian sites in Jerusalem, as well as rising violence against Christians. These allegations are uncorroborated. If there was truly a trend of rising violence against Christians, wouldn’t we expect such incidents to be reported to local law enforcement before being aired to the foreign press?
The City of Jerusalem and its Police Authorities are completely engaged in protecting Christian residents, and any reported acts of intolerance are acted upon quickly and decisively. Claims from the likes of the patriarch paint a false narrative of the tolerant culture we have nurtured in our city. We protect freedom of worship at all costs.
The numbers also paint a different picture; Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population is growing. Figures from the Israel Democratic Institute show that the Christian population has risen by 1.5 per cent in the last year. The same study showed that 84 per cent of Christians are satisfied with their lives in this country; as an example, the most educated women in Israel are from the Christian community. In tragic contrast, the numbers living under the Palestinian Authority are dwindling. In the 27 years the PA has controlled Bethlehem, for example, the Christian population has shrunk from 80 per cent to 12 per cent.
Christians are thriving in Israel, and the accusations made by the likes of Theophilos are especially cynical given that, in neighboring nations, dictators and Islamic terrorist organisations have made the extermination of Christians a publicly stated objective. It has to be asked whether, given the contradictions between Theophilos’s assertions and the realities of daily life for Christians in Jerusalem and Israel, there are ulterior motives to his claims.
With great leadership comes great responsibility. Spiritual leaders carry a particularly heavy responsibility for encouraging harmony across diverse populations, especially in a city as sacred as Jerusalem. False and incendiary claims can cause violence and death. It is unfortunate that the church leaders’ comments will undermine the relationship that was repaired and nurtured through years of deliberate bridge-building between Jews and Christians in our country and throughout the world.
Fleur Hassan Nahoum is Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem