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ROME – With tensions in Israel increasing as the Easter holiday approaches, Christian leaders in the country have lamented an uptick in violence and made an appeal to national leaders to collaborate and put an end to discrimination.
Published Friday, the message, signed by the Patriarchs and Heads of churches in Jerusalem, pointed to a biblical passage from the First Letter of Saint Peter in which the apostle says that Jesus’s resurrection offers the world “a new birth into a living hope.”
“That hope would sustain the Apostles and early Christians through many trials and tribulations, giving them the strength to endure with joy, dignity, and grace,” the religious leaders said.
Further quoting the passage, they said, “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith…may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
The words in this passage, the Christian leader said, “both encourage and empower us during these tumultuous times, when our own faith continues to be tested.”
They pointed to an escalation of violence which they said “has engulfed the Holy Land” in recent months, noting that local Christians in particular “have increasingly suffered adversities similar to the ones about which St. Peter wrote.”
“Over the past year, some of our churches, funeral processions, and places of public gathering have become targets of attack; some of our holy sites and cemeteries have been desecrated; and some of our ancient liturgies, such as the Palm Sunday Procession and the Holy Fire Ceremony, have been closed off to thousands of worshipers,” they said.
All this has happened, they said, “in spite of our agreements to cooperate with the governing authorities, and to accommodate any reasonable requests that they might present.”
Over the past few months, there have been increased attacks between Israelis and Palestinians, and the formation last fall of Israel’s far-right nationalist coalition, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has sparked fears among many Christians and other minorities of a rise in religious discrimination.
In addition to several deadly spats over the past few weeks, political disputes have caused further turmoil among Israeli citizens and opponents of Netanyahu’s government, with some accusing him of attempting to lead a coup and of curtailing democracy in the country over a proposed judicial reform.
Tensions rose further on Sunday when Israel’s government approved the establishment of National guard under the command of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Head of Israel’s far-right Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) party, Ben-Gvir in the past has defended Bentzi Gopstein, the leader of the radical anti-assimilation group Lehava, who has reportedly led violent protests against both Christian and Messianic events, and who once said Israel should expel its entire Christian population.
A lawyer, Ben-Gvir in 2015 also defended a man convicted of arson for setting fire to the Roman Catholic Church of Loaves and Fishes, called the “Church of the Multiplication,” at Tabgha, along the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Exactly what kind of authority the national guard will have and who it will answer too will be determined by a committee of experts from various security bodies and government agencies, who must deliver their conclusions within 90 days.
Critics of Sunday’s vote have said the new guard would undermine the authority of police and the Shin Bet, the Israeli Security Agency, and weaken the Israeli Defense Forces, leading to a scenario in which various security bodies are competing with one another
Netanyahu last week had promised Ben-Gvir that he would allow a vote on the issue at the next cabinet meeting in exchange for Ben-Gvir’s decision to remain in the government despite his strong opposition to Netanyahu’s pause of legislation for a judicial overhaul in order to dialogue with the opposition in the wake of mass protests.
Demonstrations erupted in Israel in January after Netanyahu’s coalition announced a reform package in which they said it is necessary to rebalance powers between parliamentarians and the judiciary.
Proposed reforms would restrict the authority of the Supreme Court and allow politicians more power in selecting judges, something opponents have said puts Israeli democracy at risk.
With protests running into their 13th week and facing pushback from Washington, Netanyahu paused the passage of the necessary legislation through parliament.
According to Israeli media, so far more than 170,000 people attended anti-government protests in Tel Aviv, with more than 450,000 people estimated to have attended demonstrations nationwide.
Tensions have increased further with Sunday’s vote in favor of a new National Guard. Some opponents, including former senior police commanders, have opposed the new body, arguing that Ben-Gvir could use it to stage a coup.
A slew of civil rights groups and opposition politicians have also voiced criticism of allowing a government ministry to have direct control over a force of that caliber on grounds that it could politicize policing and undermine the principle of equality in the law.
In their Easter message, the Christian patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem said they will continue their efforts to cooperate with government authorities and their requests, and they asked overseeing officials “to work cooperatively and collaboratively with us.”
They also called on the international community and local residents “to advocate on our behalf in order to help secure the safety, access, and religious freedom of the resident Christian community and the millions of Christian pilgrims annually visiting the Holy Land – as well as the maintenance of the religious Status Quo.”
Despite whatever support they might receive, the Christian leaders said that ultimately their hope is found “only in God,” and that through Jesus’s resurrection, “we have the blessed assurance of the Almighty’s gracious providence through the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit, they said, is “a source of divine power that is able to sustain us today, just as it sustained Jerusalem’s first Christians those many centuries ago.”
“It is in the hope offered in Christ’s resurrection that we exchange with our fellow believers around the world that ancient Christian greeting that continues to resound so powerfully today: ‘Christ is Risen!’” they said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen