The Patriarch of Jerusalem is spreading false and incendiary claims about my city

Spiritual leaders should encourage harmony - but Theophilos III is risking causing violence and death


A Greek Orthodox clergyman carries a wooden cross during a Good Friday procession, along the Via Dolorosa (Way of Suffering) in Jerusalem's Old City, on April 30, 2021. (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP) (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)

January 21, 2022 13:08

On the day before Christmas Eve, I stood in the Jaffa Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem with Issa Kassissieh, who is 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 does every year, and has done for nearly a decade. 

 This event was just one part of the celebratory week. The City of Jerusalem outfitted streets with cheerful Christmas decorations and organized a Christmas market by the recently upgraded New Gate entrance to the Christian Quarter. This is only a sampling of the initiatives undertaken by the municipality to support Christian life in Jerusalem. Further down towards the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for example, the Stations of the Cross were recently made wheelchair-accessible, a mammoth task that took years to plan and execute. 

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 herald a new era of shared society and equal opportunity. 

This is why the recent attacks by Church leaders on Jerusalem are so surprising and deeply disappointing - as was the refusal of The Times, who gave them a platform, to publish my response.

In his recent article, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III claims that there is regular desecration and vandalism of Christian sites in Jerusalem, as well as rising violence against Christians. These allegations are uncorroborated by the city and the police. 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 the Christian population, and any reported acts of intolerance are acted upon quickly and decisively. Theophilos’s claims paint a false narrative of the tolerant culture we have so carefully nurtured in our city. 

The numbers also paint a different picture to his claims: Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population is actually growing. The Israel Democratic Institute states that the Christian population has grown by 1.5% in the last year. The same study showed that 84% of Christians are satisfied with their lives in this country. 

Christians are thriving in Israel and Theophilos's and the Archbishop of Canterbury's accusations are especially cynical when you look at neighboring nations where dictators and Islamic terrorist organisations have made the extermination of Christians one of their publicly stated objectives. Given this regional context, it makes little sense that Church leaders would direct their most biting criticism toward Israel. 

The contradictions between Theophilos’s assertions and the realities of daily life for Christians in Jerusalem and Israel suggests ulterior motives for his claims. The frustration he expresses over property rights in the Christian Quarter provides a hint on what may be behind this. 

Theophilos writes: “It is at the Jaffa Gate that an Israeli radical group is seeking to occupy two big buildings, acquired through illegitimate transactions.” When appointed Patriarch of Jerusalem in 2005, Theophilos began a legal battle against the sale of two hotels by his Church to a Jewish NGO in 2004. The legality of the transaction was upheld by the Jerusalem District Court and later by the Supreme Court in 2019. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchy has in fact sold large swaths of property in Jerusalem over the last decade, including under Theophilos himself. His use of the word “occupy” to describe a legitimate real estate transaction is, I believe, potentially libellous and simply dangerous. 

However, it transpires that the central reason for the attack was exposed by Nir Hasson of Haaretz, who spoke to Church sources and reported that the tirade is part of a well-orchestrated fundraising campaign to the Christian world. Christian pilgrims are a significant part of tourism coming to Jerusalem and therefore income for the Church. The Greek Patriarchy have had financial problems for decades which is why they began selling land in Jerusalem in the first place. The Covid closures to foreign tourists have rendered them in financial dire straits and they are looking to gather sympathy and much needed donations from the Christian world. It is so depressing to me that even today in 2022 after hundreds of years of antisemitism and persecution from the different Churches and their leaders that the age old tactic of scapegoating Jews to gain sympathy is still alive and well. 

With great leadership comes great responsibility. Spiritual leaders carry a particularly large responsibility for encouraging harmony across diverse populations, especially in a city as sacred as Jerusalem. False and incendiary claims in this region can cause violence and death. His comments undermine the relationship that was repaired and nurtured through years of deliberate bridge building between Jews and Christians in our country and throughout world. 

Fleur Hasssan-Nahoum is Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem

January 21, 2022 13:08

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