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ROME – As concerns mount over Israel’s new hardline government, believed to be the most right-wing and nationalistic in the country’s history, church leaders in the Holy Land have lamented increased discrimination against the Christian community and urged youth not to leave.
In their annual Christmas message, the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem said Jesus through his incarnation and birth in Bethlehem “revealed to humanity the deep and abiding love of God for all his people” and he also “joined in the world’s suffering, enduring with the Holy Family the many struggles of life under occupation.”
These struggles, they said, included “threats of violence, forced registration, family displacement, and existence as refugees in a foreign land.”
Two centuries later, similar woes continue to afflict the world through violent conflicts across the world, such as the war in Ukraine and ongoing violence in Armenia, Syria, and “throughout the Hold Land itself,” they said.
“In this regard, we express our special concern for those faithful who remain as the Christian remnant in the land of our Lord’s birth,” they said, noting that Christians living in the Holy Land in recent years “have increasingly faced assaults on their free exercise of religion.”
These assaults, they said, include “attacks against their person, defamation of their churches and cemeteries, unwarranted restrictions against their attendance in worship, and legal threats against their possession and management of church properties.”
“Such a disheartening atmosphere has led to a lack of hope, especially among our Christian youth, who increasingly feel unwelcome in the land where their ancestors have dwelt since even before the birth of the Church on Pentecost,” the church leaders said.
As a result of this oppression, many young people are leaving in search of “places of greater opportunity,” meaning the Christian presence in the Holy Land, which makes up roughly two percent of the general population, is diminishing even further.
The warning comes as incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition faces criticism for its radical rightwing members and their hardline stance on progressive issues such as LGBTQ rights and past discriminatory behavior against the Arab community.
On Thursday Netanyahu declared his success in forming a government with his far-right and ultra-Orthodox partners, which include his own his right-wing Likud party, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, and the far-right Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam parties.
Parties have not yet signed a final coalition agreement with Netanyahu’s Likud party, though they say a framework has been reached. Netanyahu has until Jan. 2 to finalize agreements and swear in his new government.
Yet as the new government takes shape and prepares to be sworn-in, concern has mounted among minority communities and even amongst moderate Jews over lawmakers perceived as radical, such as rightwing Otzma Yehudit leader, Itamar Ben Gvir.
Gvir in the past has led violent protests against Christians and, according to local media, has reached an agreement in current negotiations to pass legislation that would end a ban on individuals who incite racism from serving in the Knesset.
His Otzma Yehudit party said Netanyahu’s Likud party has also agreed to pass a new law imposing the death penalty on terrorists, though there is no clear definition of what sort of terror offenses would be subject to capital punishment.
Rightwing Israeli lawmakers have long demanded capital punishment for terrorists, but so far there has not been enough support to enforce a law. Concern is now being raised about the abuse of such a law if it were to be drafted, as Israel has a broad definition of terrorism, including throwing stones at armed soldiers.
In their Christmas message, the patriarchs and church leaders of the Holy Land made an appeal to young people to stay, despite the mounting challenges they face.
For those weighing their options, “we offer the incarnational message of Christ’s birth as a beacon of hope, reminding us all that our Lord continues to suffer both with us and for us, leading us to new life in the light of his Risen Glory,” they said.
“Moreover, with the larger Body of Christ forming our Savior’s arms and legs in the world, our churches continue to offer places of solace, strength, and support through their worship services, their ministries of education and healthcare, their pilgrimage centers, and their opportunities for meaningful employment,” they said.
The church leaders voiced gratitude to Christians throughout the world who are now returning to the Holy Land on pilgrimage after a hiatus due to COVID-19.
They encouraged pilgrims to not only visit the holy sites of Jerusalem, but also to engage with and support “the ‘living stones’ of the local Christian presence, whose families have helped build and tend those venerable sites across the centuries, down to the present day.”
With Christmas just a few days away, they also urged Christians around the world to support “adherence to the religious Status Quo,” which regulates shared communal access to holy sites among the various religious communities in Israel and Palestine.
They also urged Christians to continue working and praying for “a lasting peace” in the Holy Land and other war-torn areas of the world, so that “the blessed message of hope” proclaimed by the angel to the shepherds around Bethlehem at Christ’s birth “may more and more be realized throughout the earth.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen