Op-ed: Pope’s visit was an opportunity to highlight distress and discrimination suffered by Christian community in State of Israel.
Pope Francis’ historic visit to Israel this week, beyond its political and symbolic meaning, was highly important for the Christians living in the country. It was an opportunity to put their distress on the agenda.
The Christians’ situation in the Middle East is difficult. In Iraq, Syria and Egypt, churches are torched and Christians are slaughtered over their religion as a matter of routine. In some parts of Syria the Islamic Sharia laws have been applied, Christians are forbidden to conduct ritual ceremonies in public and special taxes have been imposed on them.
On the background of the religious persecution in many of the region’s countries, there is an impression that the Christians’ situation in Israel is good. In his latest AIPAC address, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted that Israel was “the one country in the Middle East that protects Christians,” and Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor elaborated on the wonderful treatment of Christians in an article in the Wall Street Journal.
Comparing between the situation of Christians in Israel and the situation of their brothers in the Middle East is populist and shameful. The “only democracy in the Middle East,” whose leaders say has “shared values” with the countries of the West, should compare the situation of its minorities to the situation of minorities in the countries it has shared values with, rather than to the situation of minorities in Middle Eastern countries.
There are some 140,000 Christians in Israel, 1.7% of the population. A minority of a minority, exposed to waves of hatred. How can anyone forget the image of Knesset Member Michael Ben-Ari ripping the pages of the New Testament at the Knesset and throwing them into the garbage while uttering harsh words of incitement?
Jews in Israel fire gunshots inside churches and set fire to monasteries, spray-paint malicious graffiti and slash the tires of Christians’ cars. In the Old City of Jerusalem, religious Jews spit on monks, and in Christian cemeteries gravestones are shattered. Death threats are sent to bishops and heads of Christian communities.
Dozens of hate crimes – and the authorities stand idly by, apart from a few words of condemnation to do the minimum.
The state itself restricts the churches’ activity immensely by imposing a strict and discriminating regime of visas for Christian clerics. A priest who wishes to stay in Israel in order to serve in one of the Christian communities will be forced to undergo a humiliating via dolorosa on the part of the authorities until he receives the stay permit, if at all.
Many Christian clerics have been residing in Israel for several decades and are still restricted to a visa which does not grant them any social rights, despite their years-long service for the community in churches, schools, hospitals, senior citizens’ homes, etc.
The Christian schools that have existed in this country for centuries, in which generations of Christians, Muslims and Jews have been educated, are suffering from discrimination in the form of significantly low budgets compared to the state schools and a lack of Christian supervisors. In addition, their identity, nature and the autonomy they have always enjoyed are constantly undermined.
The Christian community itself is divided on the issue of its sons’ enlistment with the army, and the debate is inflaming the situation. The government, instead of acting as the “responsible adult” and encouraging a public discourse, has chosen to side with the enlistment supporters and set the law enforcement authorities on those who oppose it, while launching an intimidation campaign and attempting to undermine the ethnic and national identity of the Christians in Israel.
The pope’s visit, therefore, serves as a golden opportunity for decision makers in Israel. If all it comes down to is ceremonies, then it was an unnecessary visit. If, on the other hand, the visit serves as a catalyst for a discussion on the acute issues related to the Christians in Israel and on the way to handle them, it will be a blessing for everyone.