Christians in Jerusalem are now a tiny fraction of the population, barely 10,000 people, or less than 2% of the total, a huge drop from 11% a few decades ago. The vast majority are Palestinian Muslims, although there is also a small Armenian Christian community.
Christians in Jerusalem are dwindling in number and those who remain face many problems on a daily basis: the same problems faced by all Palestinians. In fact, if a resident of Jerusalem wishes to marry a person from Bethlehem, the couple can wait up to 20 years to obtain a permit to live together in Jerusalem.
Churches, too, face particular challenges due to the activities of radical Jewish settler groups – often funded by the United States – whose aims conflict with the modus vivendi that has given Jerusalem its unique character.
Some radicals humiliate clerics. Last November, a uniformed soldier spat on the Armenian Patriarch as he marched with the cross. There are also vexations, physical or verbal, committed by radical Jewish groups which create a hostile environment.
A much bigger problem is the proposed extension of a national park around the Mount of Olives. 20 Christian sites would be affected. A large part of the land in this place belongs to churches or to the Palestinian population, as well as new settlers.
Part of the project involves the construction of a large promenade that would connect two settler communities. An Israeli group points out that when Israelis come to the park, they will expect armed protection, and the area will become dangerous for Palestinians.
The park is reportedly under the Israel Nature and Parks Authority rather than municipal authorities, although the area is located in the occupied territories, legally outside the scope of Israeli law. The Authority would have discretionary power to authorize developments: churches and residents would lose control of their property.
Moreover, the municipal authorities of Jerusalem ignore the needs of the churches. They organize events at churches that do not take into account the character of the place. Some parts of the old town can be cordoned off for days, prohibiting access to churches.
Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, explains that, for settler groups, their philosophy is exclusion: “They have a ‘this place is ours’ attitude. Christians are tolerated or invited. “But we are not guests: it is also our home.”
The shenanigans of the settlers and the Israeli government
Then there are the activities of the Ateret Cohanim, a group of settlers who bought strategic properties in the old city, notably the Little Petra hotel and the Imperial hotel, in an area of symbolic importance for the Churches, and the great St. John's Inn, near the Holy Sepulchre.
These transactions were made possible because the former Greek Orthodox Patriarch empowered a financial adviser who sold the leases of the properties to the settlers on a dubious legal basis. The current patriarch challenged those agreements, but the Israeli Supreme Court rejected the latest appeal a few months ago, despite the presentation of new evidence.
Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer specializing in geopolitics, believes that these real estate transactions are important: “This is not an isolated incident. It is part of an overall plan directly sponsored by the Israeli government to encircle the Old City and its surroundings, and integrate it into a version of Jerusalem according to the settlers' biblical motivations.”
“This initiative is part of the web of an overall policy, which is to surround and permeate the old city with settlements and settler-related activities. And this is not just a threat to the hotels, but a threat to the character of Jerusalem and, more specifically, a threat to the viability of the Christian presence in Jerusalem, and that is how the churches see it.”
The problems of the Church in Jerusalem are, of course, not new. But after the last elections in Israel, which gave an even greater weight to settlers and ultra-Orthodox Jews, the pressure is likely to be stronger and stronger, and to continue to drive out the small remnant of Christians.