Members of Congress call on State Department to insist on religious freedom in Jerusalem

Letter to Secretary of State Blinken cites “radical groups who are able to act with impunity.”

BY JEFF WRIGHT  

U.S. CONGRESSMAN JOAQUIN CASTRO SPEAKING WITH ATTENDEES AT THE 2019 CALIFORNIA DEMOCRATIC PARTY STATE CONVENTION AT THE GEORGE R. MOSCONE CONVENTION CENTER IN SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA.

Last Friday, led by Representatives Joaquin Castro (D-TX) and Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), eight members of Congress sent a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing their “[deep concern about] the rise in attacks against the Christian community in Jerusalem.” The members of Congress are calling on Blinken and Rashad Hussain, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, to “work with the Israeli government to uphold its stated commitment to the freedom of religion and worship for all religions and to hold accountable the radical groups who are engaging in sustained attacks against Christian clergy and destruction of church properties.”

“The actions of radical groups who are able to act with impunity,” the letter states, “directly threaten the religious freedom of the Christian community in Jerusalem and undermine the rich history of interfaith cooperation within the city.” 

Representatives cited several examples of the violence and quoted from a December 2021 statement from the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, in which the church leaders decried “countless incidents of physical and verbal assaults against priests and other clergy, attacks on Christian churches, with holy sites regularly vandalized and desecrated, and ongoing intimidation of local Christians who simply seek to worship freely and go about their daily lives.”

The letter continues, “The decline of the Christian presence in Jerusalem is not only a blow to religious freedom but also has humanitarian consequences. Ministry programs organized under the auspices of the Christian churches in Jerusalem meet the medical, educational, and humanitarian needs of many disadvantaged people regardless of religious affiliation throughout Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan. If the radical groups succeed in driving out the Christian community, many of these programs will no longer be able to operate.” 

Members called Blinken’s attention to Christian tourism in the Holy Land which “generates $3 billion in revenue for the Israeli economy, demonstrating the significant financial contribution the Christian community in Jerusalem makes to Israel despite its small numbers.”

Asked to respond to the letter, Jonathan Kattab, international human rights lawyer and Executive Director of Friends of Sabeel North America, said, “In the past, when questioned about religious hostility, Israel has sought to present a secular viewpoint. In response to anti-Islam or anti-Christian violence, the state would say, ‘We are for religious freedom and free access to the holy sites.’ But there has been a shift to the right in Israel. Extremists have become mainstream, become a part of the government. Many claim now that Jerusalem is a Jewish city, that Jews have the right to determine life in the Jerusalem. In this way, violence is not seen as a religious act of hostility against Christians and Muslims; it is seen, instead, in terms of nationalism and Jewish sovereignty over the city.”

When they charged that extremist groups “are able to act with impunity,” Congressional signatories to the letter may have had in mind this shift in the Israeli government that Kuttab describes. 

In response to the letter, Churches for Middle East Peace’s Senior Director of Advocacy and Government Relations, Kyle Cristofalo, said: “We are grateful to Reps. Castro and Bilirakis for leading this critical letter and for all the members who joined. The actions of radical Jewish settler groups against Christians in Jerusalem, including the recent seizure of the Greek Orthodox-owned Little Petra Hotel, directly threaten the long-term sustainability of the Christian community in the Holy Land. Attacks in recent months against Christian clergy and Muslim worshippers at the al-Aqsa mosque are in violation of the Status Quo and must cease immediately.”  

Signed by Representatives James McGovern (D-MA), Andy Harris (R-MD), French Hill (R-AR), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Jackie Speier (D-CA), and Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY) in addition to Castro and Bilirakis, the letter ends with this request, “We ask you to work closely with counterparts in the Israeli government to ensure Jerusalem is a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims can worship freely, without fear of attack.”

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