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More and more Christians among victims of war in the Holy Land

Published: 27.12.2023

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- The escalation of the armed conflict between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip may cause the already sparse Christian minority to disappear from the area.

- Israeli authorities officially condemn attacks on religious minorities, but their actions do not actually work.

- The demands of the UN General Assembly do not find understanding from the Israeli authorities.

On December 16, two people were killed by Israeli sniper bullets - a mother and daughter walking out of Gaza's only Catholic church. The two women belonged to the local Christian community and actively participated in the life of the parish. The church also housed Christian families who had taken refuge from the ongoing fighting. According to witnesses, "the soldiers fired in cold blood." Despite the Patriarch of Jerusalem's call, the attacks did not cease. Initially, the Israeli military, justifying the attack, argued that it had received information that "there are rocket launchers in the parish area." However, on December 17, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) denied claims that a Catholic parish in the Gaza Strip was their target. In addition, it stressed that the IDF "does not target civilians, regardless of their religion." In another statement, dated December 19, the IDF released a preliminary report on an exchange of fire with Hamas from near the church, which again stated that the Israeli army was not responsible for the deaths of the two women. The report explained that an exchange of fire between the IDF and Hamas took place in the area indicated: "Hamas terrorists fired a rocket-propelled grenade at IDF soldiers from near the church." As highlighted, IDF soldiers identified three people nearby who acted as Hamas "observers" and "directed their attacks," and "fired at the observers, hitting them."

Increasing casualties among Gaza Christians

The December 16 incident was one of many in which Christians living in the Gaza Strip fell victim. At the same time, the public was informed that an Israeli army missile hit the convent of the Missionary Sisters of Charity in Gaza. The building was severely damaged. According to available information, "54 disabled people were cared for in the convent, which is located in the parish." On the other hand, on October 19, the Israeli army bombed St. Porphyrios Church in Gaza, where some 50 worshippers were sheltered. More than a dozen people were killed as a result of the attack.

Acts of violence by the Israeli army against Christians are on the rise, despite the fact that clerics reported the Holy Family Church in Gaza to the Israeli army as a place of prayer and shelter for civilians at the very beginning of the war. There are currently more than 600 refugees, including children and the elderly, who have found refuge in the parish. Available data shows that since October 7, 2% of the approximately 1,000-strong Christian community living in the Gaza Strip have lost their lives, and the homes of more than 50 families have also been destroyed. In an interview with L'Osservatore Romano, Father Francesco Patton - Custos of the Holy Land - stated that the situation of Christians has always been difficult but with the outbreak of war, "the position of Palestinian Christians is becoming extremely difficult," and he fears that they will disappear completely from the Gaza Strip.

The war against terrorists, and Christians are suffering

The situation for Christians is difficult not only in the Gaza Strip, but also in Israel itself. At present, Christians are a decided minority in the Holy Land. They number about 2% in Israel and about 1.5% in the West Bank. Due to attacks and discrimination, not only by Orthodox Jews, but also by Israeli soldiers, Christians are choosing to leave Israel. The spiral of violence has escalated especially since the beginning of 2023. For example, in January 2023, two Jewish teenagers were arrested for destroying graves in the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion. Both Armenian community buildings in Jerusalem and Armenian restaurants are being vandalized. Jews also commit destruction of Christ statues and attack Catholic priests and nuns. By the middle of the year, the number of incidents was so high that in July the Polish Foreign Ministry intervened in attacks on pilgrims and members of the convent of the Polish Elizabethan Sisters in Jerusalem. In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in July, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa said that while aggression by Jews against Christians is nothing new, what is somewhat of a novelty is the frequency with which attacks are occurring. The escalation of aggression was also recognized by the bishops' commission "Iustitia et Pax," which issued a special statement on July 28, 2023. The document stressed that behavior such as "spitting, insults, physical violence, as well as vandalism and graffiti are committed mainly by Jewish extremist youths," and that state authorities continue to allow these "expressions of contempt."

Israeli authorities' position

Israeli authorities officially condemn all attacks on religious minorities. Aggressive behavior against Christians was condemned by Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who said in a June 2023 statement that "such behavior is strictly forbidden," as it is against Jewish law. In the same vein was Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, who stressed that city authorities take action as soon as they receive complaints of harassment against Christians. The establishment of a special investigative group in Jerusalem was also announced recently. According to representatives of the Christian minority, however, in most cases the police do not respond adequately to the situation and the vandals even have "tacit" acquiescence from those in power. Religious minority leaders in this context point out that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only in October 2023 announced a "zero tolerance" policy toward attacks by ultra-Orthodox Jews. Confirmation of the concerns raised may also be provided by the fact that Netanyahu and his cabinet have been called "the most religious and right-wing government in Israel's history," which may, according to commentators, "embolden" radicals.

According to political scientists, particularly noteworthy is the person of Itamar Ben-Gewir of "Jewish Power," who makes no secret of his dislike of Christians. In his law practice, he became famous, among other things, for defending Jewish radicals accused of acts of hatred. Activists, including Elisha Yered, an extremist and former spokesman for far-right parliamentarian Limor Son Har-Melech, fit into this pattern of radical views. Yered has become famous in recent months for a controversial post on the "X" platform, in which he stated that "(...) spitting near priests or churches is an ancient Jewish custom." The anti-Christian attitude is also evident in the increasing restriction of Gaza Christians from entering Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Summary


In a recent statement to RMF FM radio, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Stambler, chairman of Chabad-Lubavitch, convinced Polish listeners that "there is no more humanistic military and no more humanistic politics than Israel's." The events of the past year seem to contradict these claims. The conflict between Israel and Hamas is escalating to the point where its victims are outsiders. The international community also recognizes this. As early as October of this year, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres sounded the alarm that Israel was violating international law in the Gaza Strip.  In response, Israeli authorities revoked visas for UN officials. Meanwhile, on December 12, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution (A/ES-10/L.27) calling on Israeli authorities for an "immediate humanitarian ceasefire" and protection of civilians and humanitarian access. In response, the Israeli ambassador called the resolution "hypocritical." Three more resolutions were adopted on December 20, 2023. In total, in 2023. UN General Assembly adopted 23 resolutions, 14 of which dealt directly with Israel. Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, commented, calling the state of affairs "a 'farce' and discriminatory." In the conclusion of his statement, Neuer accused the UN of bias and of violating the principle of equal treatment of all countries in order to, as he put it, "make Israel a scapegoat." Acts of violence against Christians were also condemned by Pope Francis, who stressed that the targets of Israeli attacks in Gaza are "not terrorists but families, children, sick and disabled people and sisters." 

Dr. Kinga Szymanska - analyst at the Ordo Iuris Center for Research and Analysis

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