Attacks on Christians taint events, but support of Israel remains strong

The largest Christian solidarity event in Israel was marred by a protest and spitting attacks on Christian tourists by ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Old City, but that did not deter the 3,000 evangelical Christians attending the Feast of Tabernacles conference from participating in the Jerusalem March.

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The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), which draws thousands of Christians each year to its Sukkot celebration, came this year amid a rise in violence against Christians and Christian sites throughout the country.

ICEJ Vice President and senior spokesman David Parsons acknowledged the recent uptick in attacks but said that the conference attendees have experienced a “warm welcome” from Israelis.

“I don’t think that these incidents are going to have an impact on the generational shift that we’ve seen in the Christian world from several generations ago—a contempt for the Jewish people, replacement theology,” he told The Media Line. “Over the last 40 to 50 years there’s been a huge transformation, a real sea change in Christians. These people are going to continue to stand and continue to express their love for them like they do today. A few incidents like this aren’t going to deter us.”

On Wednesday evening, Israeli police arrested several people suspected of spitting in the direction of Christian pilgrims and churches as religious tensions flared anew in Jerusalem, the contested capital that the three Abrahamic faiths consider holy. Earlier in the week a video had gone viral of ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting at Christian tourists carrying a cross. That incident drew widespread condemnation from all political echelons of Israel.

March of the Nations: Thousands of Christians from more than 90 countries march through the streets of Jerusalem on October 4, 2023. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In a statement, the ICEJ thanked the Israeli leaders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Chief Rabbis of Israel David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef for “their strong statements of support for religious freedom in this country and their disapproval of recent acts meant to humiliate or harm Christians.”

Netanyahu on Tuesday said that “Israel is fully committed to safeguarding the sacred right of freedom of worship and pilgrimage to the holy sites of all faiths” and condemned “any attempt to inflict harm on worshippers, and we will take urgent steps against such actions.”

“Offensive behavior toward worshippers is a desecration and is unacceptable,” he said. “We will show zero tolerance toward any harm to worshippers.”

Since January, dozens of attacks by extremist ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist Jews ranging from minor infractions to vandalism and, in some cases, assault, aimed at Christians or Christian sites, have taken place. Bearing the brunt of these attacks are mostly local Palestinian Arabs and Armenians.

For example, in January, two ultra-nationalist Jews were arrested for vandalizing a Protestant cemetery. In another attack this year, a group of ultra-nationalist Jews went on a violent rampage at an Armenian restaurant, sending customers rushing for safety. Clergymen report getting spat on by ultra-Orthodox Jews on a near-daily basis.

Parsons said that the ICEJ event is attended primarily by evangelical Christians from abroad. The event faces opposition from anti-missionary groups.

“I think there’s a bit of a different dynamic where there’s a lot of Orthodox Jews, like in Mea Shearim and the Jewish Quarter, and they are passing by each area in the narrow streets of the Old City with a lot of Christian tour groups and a lot of local Muslims—and there are tensions that just flare up,” he said. “But some of the protests against the evangelicals, who are friends with Israel, have been on the western side of the city. It’s different people, different elements. We are trying to monitor what the traditional churches are saying. We trust the Latin Patriarch Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa. He’s been here a long time and he knows the terrain and what are the tensions, how not to stir it up, and how to be responsible.”

A peaceful event

Amid these high tensions, and with very tight security, the march on Wednesday was peaceful despite a small protest the previous night at the ICEJ conference by anti-missionary groups. Flying national flags and dressed in native garb, participants from dozens of countries colored the city streets. The ICEJ said that its participants came from more than 80 nations including Fiji, Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, Iran, Indonesia, and North Korea.

As they walked the three-mile route, participants distributed flags, candy, and other gifts to the thousands of Israelis who lined the streets.

Jani Salokangas, national director of the ICEJ Finnish Branch, said that despite tensions this year, Finland had its biggest group ever attend the feast.

“Finland is a small country that has some similar history to this nation being a small player, being attacked by big forces and surviving by a miracle of God,” he told The Media Line. “That is something that touches the people of Finland to come here and show their support.”

A Christian from Ukraine, Inna Pletenetska, endured a 20-hour train ride, several stops, and checkpoints to make it out of war-torn Kyiv because “Israel is worth it.”

She also expressed understanding for the protestors.

“I understand them because maybe they come from a history of pogroms, of antisemitism,” she told The Media Line. “Christianity, unfortunately, is a synonym to them with antisemitism and we just want to change that somehow. But in a way, I understand so I am not offended in any way.”

A small group of protestors filed through the crowd with a sign in Hebrew declaring, “The people of Israel won’t convert to Christianity.”

A march participant from the Cook Islands said that protestors made sweeping motions at them indicating that he should leave the country. Paul Turepu told The Media Line they played their national instruments in response.

“I guess we responded in love and our love was to show them who we are and where we are from as a people,” he said. “We’ll still come back to Israel even though we are a small nation of 13,000. Israel is God’s holy land and the Bible says every Christian should come to Israel and that’s what we did.”

Thousands of Israelis lined the parade route to greet the marchers. Jerusalemite Elisheva Kula, who brought her four children, said she was not concerned about missionary activity.

“We have no concerns. We are fully confident in our education. We are a religious people, liberal, and we believe in our Torah and our own path,” she told The Media Line. “This is a one-time event, not an education. Jerusalem belongs to everyone, and people come from a variety of religions, peoples, opinions, and nationalities, but it doesn’t shake our faith.”

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