Jerusalem church leader says Israeli extremists threaten Christian presence in city

JERUSALEM, January 9 (Reuters) – The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem has accused radical Israeli groups of threatening the presence of Christians in the holy city, in comments that Israeli officials have dismissed as baseless.

In a The Times of London column on Saturday, His Beatitude Theophilos III said he believed the goal was to drive the Christian community out of the Old City of Jerusalem, which is home to sites sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City, as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a 1967 war. It annexed East Jerusalem after the war in a move that did not gain recognition international.

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“Our presence in Jerusalem is threatened,” the patriarch wrote in the article, published a day after the Greek Orthodox Christmas celebration.

“Our churches are threatened by radical Israeli fringe groups. At the hands of these Zionist extremists, the Christian community in Jerusalem is suffering greatly, he said.

“Our brothers and sisters are victims of hate crimes. Our churches are regularly desecrated and vandalized. Our clergy are subjected to frequent intimidation.”

In labeling the extremists as Israelis, Theophilos’ criticism was more personal and incisive than that of a collective statement issued by heads of other churches in Jerusalem before Christmas.

Their statement spoke of “frequent and supported attacks by radical fringe groups,” but refrained from identifying them as Israelis.

A US State Department report released last year on religious freedom around the world said Christian clergy and pilgrims continued to report cases of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem harassing or spitting at them.

Religious groups have been reporting vandalism attacks on religious sites in the city for some time. Theophilos has neither accused any radical group by name nor cited specific incidents. He did not provide proof that they were Israeli, or that their goal was to drive Christians out of the city.

On Sunday, an Israeli official said the reality on the ground for Christians was completely different from that described by the Patriarch, citing a Foreign Ministry statement on December 22 that refuted previous claims by church leaders.

“From the day of its creation, the State of Israel has been committed to protecting the freedom of religion and worship for all religions, as well as to guaranteeing freedom of access to holy places,” the official said. ministry press release.

“The statement by Church leaders in Jerusalem is particularly infuriating given their silence on the plight of many Christian communities in the Middle East who suffer from discrimination and persecution.

In his column, Theophilos said the radicals he criticized “are not representative of the State of Israel or the Jewish people,” and called on Jerusalem to remain a “Mosaic community” diverse in Judaism, Christianity and of Islam.

(This story fixes to add a deleted word in the title.)

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Reporting by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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