Why Israel Is Turning the Screw on Christians in Jerusalem

Joseph Dana

Israel’s annexation plans for Jerusalem have never been all that difficult to decipher. Since the 1967 takeover of the eastern part of the city, the Israeli government has invested substantial resources in establishing a strong Jewish presence across Jerusalem. Most of these efforts have focused on the city’s Muslim Arab residents and various methods to remove them from their land. What’s all too often lost in discussions about Israel’s annexation are the efforts aimed at the Christian community in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

This conversation is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore as tension between the Israeli government and the Christian leadership in Jerusalem reached a boiling point recently. In a rare sign of unity, Christian leaders from various denominations jointly decided to close the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in a sign of protest over proposed tax legislation targeting Christians. The church, believed to be the place where Jesus was crucified, is one of the holiest sites in Christianity and a major tourist attraction for international pilgrims. It remained closed for three days.

For decades, church-owned property throughout Jerusalem was not subject to tax by the Jerusalem municipality. Seemingly out of nowhere, the municipality declared it would change its criteria for tax-free property to only include places used for prayer or the teaching of religion. The result would be a staggering tax bill – close to $200 million – for church-owned commercial property. Christian leaders were also angry with another proposed bill in the Israeli parliament that would allow the state to confiscate land sold by the Christian community to private developers.

Since 1967, Israel has depended on the support of several Christian communities around the world. Evangelical Christians, in particular, are critical to the health of the special relationship between Israel and the United States. Evangelical interpretation of Biblical scripture posits that the Jewish people must be in control of Jerusalem for the Messiah to return to Earth. Israeli leaders, fully aware that evangelical belief also declares that all non-Christians must convert when the Messiah returns, have used this religious rationale to turn evangelical voters into an important engine of support in the US.

Israel also uses the presence of Christians in the country as evidence of its supposed enlightened governance. With breathless PR, Israel argues that it is the most religiously tolerant country in the Middle East. This PR continues even as Israel entrenches its occupation of the West Bank, creating incredible hardship for Palestinian Christian communities in Bethlehem and Ramallah.

Anyone who has visited Bethlehem in recent years would have seen how the city is straining under Israeli occupation. Due to Israeli restrictions and closures, tourist numbers have dropped. Annual Christmas celebrations, which are normally a high point for tourism, have noticeably lacked enthusiasm and numbers in recent years. Impossibly, this situation barely registers on the radar of Israel’s devout Christian supporters around the world.

That could change as a result of the latest protest in Jerusalem. What happens in Jerusalem makes international news headlines and is hard to avoid, even for casual onlookers of the conflict. Events at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre can have a profound impact on opinion of Israel and its control over Jerusalem. This is one reason why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened after three days to help end the current crisis.

That brings us to the bigger question: Why is Israel going after Church leaders and challenging the status quo? The answer lies in how Israel has approached its occupation and control over Jerusalem and Palestinian land from the start. Since 1967, the country’s central goal has been to acquire ownership of as much Palestinian land as possible through legal and other means.

On the heels of US President Donald Trump’s decision to accelerate the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Israeli government feels emboldened to move forward with efforts to siphon off as much land as possible in Jerusalem. Trump’s decision has demonstrated that if Israel unilaterally changes the facts on the ground, the United States will support its actions regardless of any peace process or international law. For Israeli leaders, now is as good a time as any to take land from Jerusalemite Christians.

In the early 1990s, the Israeli historian Benny Morris was one of the first historians to gain access to Israel’s archival material from the 1948 war. His research uncovered evidence of war crimes by the nascent Israeli army as it carved out a border in the first Arab-Israeli war. At first, Morris was regarded as a leftist because he dared to expose the unspoken truths of Israel’s founding, but after the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, he moved to the right. His reason for doing so is relevant to this discussion of Christians in Jerusalem.

For Morris, Israel should have completed its program of ethnic cleansing in 1948 like other countries had done at the time of their founding. By not finishing the job, he argued, Israel had been left with myriad internal problems stemming from the presence of large numbers of non-Jews. For some lawmakers, recent efforts to make life harder for Jerusalemite Christians and ensure their land ends up in Israeli hands is merely a continuation of the work started in 1948.

Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.

AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX