According to The Jerusalem Post, Theophilos III of Jerusalem, the current patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, warned US President Joe Biden when he met with him that extremist Israeli forces are escalating tensions in Jerusalem’s Old City, straining daily life and endangering worshipers, according to Channel 12’s Yaron Avraham.
The patriarch warned that “The main way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is under serious threat from extremist Jewish forces who have targeted the Christian Quarter with the goal of altering the historic, demographic and geographic nature and validity of the site and terminate the Christian presence in the city,” in a letter to Biden.
It is saddening that these groups are supported, in part, by right-wing figures in Israel’s political sphere, the letter continues. Together, they are attempting to alter the city’s long-standing order.
The allegations in the letter have not been confirmed by Israeli sources.
Conflict between Jews and Christians in the Old City
The Greek Orthodox patriarch has previously made similar assertions. He charged radical Israeli organizations in January with posing a threat to Christians living in the Old City. At the time, Israeli officials rejected those allegations as unfounded.
Theophilos III stated in a Times of London column shortly after Christmas that he believed there was a plan to drive the Christian community out of the Old City and that “our presence in Jerusalem is under threat.”
He wrote, “Our churches are threatened by Israeli radical fringe groups,” he wrote. “At the hands of these Zionist extremists, the Christian community in Jerusalem is suffering greatly. Our brothers and sisters are the victims of hate crimes. Our churches are regularly desecrated and vandalized. Our clergy are subject to frequent intimidation.”
Because he mentioned Israeli organizations that are hostile to the Greek Orthodox Church, his statements stood out. Similar statements from other church leaders in Jerusalem were made a month earlier, just before Christmas. They mentioned “frequent and sustained attacks by fringe radical groups,” but they didn’t specifically name them as Israeli.
Theophilos III did not specifically name or accuse any radical organizations. Furthermore, he did not offer any proof that they were Israeli or that their objective was to expel Christians from the city.
Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, charged church leaders in April with fabricating information about minorities in Jerusalem as part of a “well-orchestrated fundraising campaign to the Christian world.”
Recent attacks by Church leaders, including those by Theophilos III, were called “surprising and deeply disappointing” by Hassan-Nahoum. She stated that the reports of vandalism had not been verified by the city or the Israel Police and that over the previous seven years, the city had committed “unprecedented resources” to helping close social gaps in the Old City and east Jerusalem.
The following figures were provided by the deputy mayor via the Israel Democracy Institute: In the past year, the number of Christians in Israel increased by 1.5%, and 84 percent of them are content with their lives here.
The Christian population of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, has decreased from 80% to 12% in the 27 years the PA has controlled the city, according to Hassan-Nahoum. “In tragic contrast, the Christian communities living under the Palestinian Authority are dwindling,” he wrote.
Tensions are exacerbated by Jerusalem’s land shortage.
Property ownership is another contentious issue that has recently heightened tensions between Christians and Jews in the Old City.
The Greek Orthodox Church sold two properties, the Imperial and Petra Hotels, situated just inside the city’s Jaffa Gate to the right-wing NGO Ateret Cohanim back in 2005. The church’s finance director Nicholas Papadimas was blamed for the sale after the then-patriarch Irenaios initially denied knowledge of it and declared it invalid.
Theophilos III, the current patriarch, took the sale case to the Jerusalem District Court after succeeding Irenaios.
The sale was approved by the court as legal. In order to get a new trial, the church appealed to the Supreme Court and cited Ted Bloomfield’s affidavit, who worked for Ateret Cohanim in the 1990s. Bloomfield alleged that the NGO regularly bought off top church officials and occasionally gave them access to prostitutes.
The future owners and occupants of the two hotels are uncertain as a result of the Supreme Court’s recognition on June 8 of the sale of the lease agreement to Ateret Cohanim. Since 1949, the Arab Dajani family has resided in and managed the Imperial hotel.