By Mark Michael
Britain’s most influential Jewish organization called for a meeting with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to discuss “deeply troubling” portions of an op-ed about the plight of Israel’s Palestinian Christians that he co-wrote for the December 19 Sunday Times.
Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said in her open letter that she was “especially troubled” by parallels that Welby and his fellow author, Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem Hosam Naoum, drew between the violent backdrop of the first Christmas and recent attacks on Christian clergy and churches in Jerusalem.
Van der Zyl said the reference to the first Christmas “allows for the possibility of comparison to current events… because of the potential linkage which could be made between Christianity, Jews, and the killing of children in any current context”.
She said this was “particularly distressing because I know that you have advocated for policies that support Jewish communal concerns. I fear that rather than encouraging reasoned dialogue on the issues you raise, this may in fact divide communities.”
There has been no public response from Lambeth Palace about the request for a meeting.
The archbishops’ article “Let Us Pray for the Christians Being Driven from the Holy Land,” built upon and directly referenced a December 13 joint statement by Jerusalem’s patriarchs and heads of churches that Welby and Naoum called “an unprecedented and urgent alarm call.”
The Jerusalem patriarchs, they said “described ‘countless incidents’ of physical and verbal assaults against priests and other clergy, and attacks on Christian churches. They spoke of holy sites being regularly vandalized and desecrated, and the ongoing intimidation of local Christians as they go about their worship and daily lives.”
The Sunday Times article directly referenced a series of recent attacks by Jewish extremists on two prominent Jerusalem church sites. In March 2021, the Romanian Orthodox Patriarchate’s monastery, located in the mostly Hasidic Mea Shearim neighborhood, was attacked four times by “Orthodox Jewish fundamentalists,” according to The Palestine Chronicle. In 2014, the same complex was defaced with Hebrew graffiti reading “Price tag, King David is for the Jews, Jesus is garbage.”
Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox patriarch, Theophilus, claimed that the March attacks were an intimidation attempt (commonly known as a “price tag” attack) related to a legal dispute between the Romanian patriarchate and a right-wing Jewish NGO over land owned by the Romanian patriarchate.
The March attack was, Theophilus said, the latest in a series of “hideous attempts to control Church properties as evident by the attempts of Israeli radical groups to take over Orthodox Church properties in Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate, specifically the Imperial Hotel, Petra Hotel, and other real estate, using twisted methods and through corrupt deals filled with bribery, extortion and illegitimate pressure.”
In another attack referenced in the Sunday Times piece, an unnamed man wearing a Jewish skullcap also threw a firebomb inside the Church of All Nations in the Garden of Gethsemane in December 2020. The attack caused only minor damage, and the suspect’s motives, Israeli newspaper Haaretz claimed, were “criminal, not political.”
Such attacks, the patriarchs’ joint statement said, are part of “a systematic attempt to drive the Christian community out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.” Welby and Naoum also claim that they have been a major factor in the drop of the Christian share of the population in the Holy Land over the last 100 years, from 10% to 2%. Declines have been especially steep in the Old City of Jerusalem’s historically Christian quarters, where fewer than 2000 Christians are thought to remain.
Welby and Naoum acknowledge that “Christians in Israel enjoy democratic and religious freedoms that are a beacon in the region,” But they also claim that “the growth of settler communities and travel restrictions brought about by the West Bank separation wall have deepened the isolation of Christian villages and curtailed economic and social possibilities.” This has, they said, forced significant numbers of Palestinian Christians to emigrate to the West, “a historic tragedy unfolding in real time.”
Their article’s closing section situates the current crisis of the Bible’s story of Christ’s Nativity, which, they said, is often unhelpfully romanticized by modern Christians. “The first Christmas tells us of God coming into our world among ordinary lives of human struggle. In the foreground is a refugee family, against the backdrop of the genocide of infants,” they wrote.
Van der Zyl agreed with the archbishops that the attacks by extremists were “unacceptable,” but she noted that the Palestinian population in the region has grown significantly since the creation of the State of Israel, and doubted their association of the decline in its Christian population with Jewish settler violence and the border wall.
“If the overall Palestinian population has greatly increased, but the Palestinian Christian population has significantly declined, then clearly there are more complex reasons than those raised in the article, which appeared to attribute this decline to Jewish settlers and the barrier built to halt the wave of terror attacks of the Second Intifada,” van der Zyl said.
“I would ask for a meeting with you to discuss our concerns and seek a way forward in which we can work together more closely in the pursuit of peace and harmony between Jewish and Christian communities – not just in the Holy Land, but in this country as well.”
The Board of Deputies of British Jews, founded in 1760, is Britain’s second-oldest Jewish community organization, and describes itself as “the voice of the UK Jewish community.” It represents most synagogues and Jewish organizations in the UK, and is the primary interface for government, media, and interfaith groups. Britain’s Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish communities do not participate in it.
Notably, British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour addressed his 1917 Balfour Declaration, the founding document of what is now the State of Israel, to Lord Lionel Rothschild, because he was then serving as the president of the Board of Deputies.