Assault on religious freedom: violent crackdown by Israeli police on Christian worshipers in Jerusalem

Juan Cole

Informed Comment  /  April 16, 2023 

Ann Arbor – The Arabic press is reporting violent assaults Saturday evening by Israeli police against Palestinian Christian worshipers in Jerusalem attempting to make their way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for the “Saturday of Light” commemoration. The police attacks took place at the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in response to Christians objecting to the barriers the police had erected to keep crowds away.

On this day Eastern Orthodox priests descend to the basement where they say their candles are lit from an illumination emanating from the tomb that once held Christ before his resurrection. The lighted candles they bring back up are used to light other candles, and the light is taken by airplane to Eastern Orthodox countries like Greece, Bulgaria and Ukraine and distributed to churches.

So not only are the Israelis refusing to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian occupation, they are limiting Ukrainian pilgrims from attending the Saturday of Light festivities.

Ordinarily 10,000 worshipers would flock to the church for this festival, but the Israeli police under the new extremist, Jewish supremacist Netanyahu government, have refused to allow more than a fraction of them to gather there this year. Some 1800 were allowed inside the church and another 1200 were permitted to gather in the square just outside it.

The Israeli police statement claimed that some of the Christian worshipers attempted to enter the church by force. The police arrested one man, who is charged with attacking them.

The foreign ministry of the government of Palestine issued a statement saying that it “condemns in the strongest terms the occupation forces’ attack on Christians celebrating the Holy Saturday in the Old City (Jerusalem), and preventing dozens from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” adding that it considered these actions “strong evidence of the oppression practiced by the occupation forces toward Palestinian citizens, and toward the believers who came to worship in Jerusalem, regardless of their nationality.”

The assaults on these worshipers, the ministry said, are “a flagrant attack on the political, historical and legal status quo, and a brazen violation of the obligations of Israel, the occupying power, in Jerusalem.”

The “Status Quo” is a technical term. According to agreements that go back to the Ottoman period and which were accepted by Israel in 1967 when it militarily seized Palestinian East Jerusalem, each religious community has control over its own religious edifices.

The Eastern Orthodox Church explains, “the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem has absolute sovereignty, both in the Church of the Resurrection and the Holy Sepulchre, as well as in the rest of the Holy Sites within Palestine. The Church of the Resurrection, the Golgotha, the Holy Sepulchre and Adam’s Chapels, the Crown of Thorns, Centurion Longinus’ the Monastery of the Klapon and the Prison of Christ fall within the spiritual, administrative and pastoral jurisdiction of the Patriarchate, as well as part of the Praetorium, the Tomb of Panaghia in Gethsemane, the Church of “Little Galilee” on the Mount of Olives, the site where Protomaryr Stephen was stoned to death, and the house of Theotokos.”

It is open season on Christians in Jerusalem since PM Binyamin Netanyahu brought extremists such as Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben-Gvir and Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich into the cabinet and even gave them power over the Palestinians.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who is appointed by the Vatican, told AP this week that the far, far right government has emboldened Jewish extremists to attack clergymen and commit vandalism against churches at an unprecedented rate. He said that the extremists now feel that they have government protection, adding, “The frequency of these attacks, the aggressions, has become something new.”

Juan Cole is the founder and chief editor of Informed Comment; he is Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the author of, among others, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam