Israel is deliberately trying to de-Christianise Jerusalem

Israel is deliberately trying to de-Christianise Jerusalem
The escalating crackdown on Jerusalem's diminishing Christian population is part of a calculated and decades-long policy by the Israeli regime to erase the city's Palestinian character in order to rewrite history, writes Emad Moussa.
6 min read
24 Apr, 2023
Orthodox Christians gather with lit candles around the Edicule, believed to be the burial site of Jesus Christ, during the Holy Fire ceremony at the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem's Old City on 15 April 2023 on the eve of Easter Sunday. [Getty]

Last week, thousands of Palestinian and foreign Christians flocked into occupied Jerusalem to celebrate the Sabbath of Light.

At the Church of Holy Sepulchre, worshippers passed on the candle lights from one to another until they turned the otherwise dim space into a ball of flickering lights, symbolising the power of faith in dissipating darkness.

The spectacular scene has been a key ritual for Palestinian Christians for over a thousand years, enhanced by their pride in being the oldest Christian community in the world inhabiting the birthplace of their religion.

But in a land scarred by military occupation, normality is but a luxury and joyful jubilations are nothing but fleeting moments. As people huddled up in solemn contemplation around Christ’s tomb, the cameras outside were capturing Israeli police attacking pilgrims and jostling priests as they tried to reach the church.

"For the city’s Christians, much like their Muslim compatriots who are routinely denied access to  Al Aqsa Mosque, the increasing restrictions are less about safety and more about stepping up the Israeli efforts to Judaise Jerusalem"

Easter in particular has been the festival triggering further Israeli restrictions. For the second year in a row, the occupation authorities restricted the number of people allowed to celebrate the Sabbath of Light in the Church of Holy Sepulchre to 1800, as opposed to 10,000 worshippers who typically congregated in and around the church during Easter in the years prior.

Citing safety as the reason, the Israeli police denied entry to most worshippers from the gates of the Old City, including foreign tourists and Palestinian Christians from the Occupied West Bank, as well as the very few lucky Gazan Christians whom Israel granted ‘permits’ to enter Jerusalem. The pilgrims were instead directed to an adjacent area with a livestream for the celebration.

Visitors who descend on Jerusalem these days would immediately notice that the city has been embellished with a variety of unpleasant additions: security cameras on the Church of Flagellation, an iron gate at the Franciscans, and barbed wire on the Armenian Monastery’s roof.

All are complemented by a large Israeli force stationed on every street and guarding every entrance into the Old City.

For the city’s Christians, much like their Muslim compatriots who are routinely denied access to  Al Aqsa Mosque, the increasing restrictions are less about safety and more about stepping up the Israeli efforts to Judaise Jerusalem.

With the rise of Israel’s far-right, the settler movement has been emboldened to take action against Jerusalem’s Palestinians to shoehorn a Jewish take-over of the city. Incidents of physical and verbal abuse against church staff, and vandalism and desecration of Christian sites, while not new, are notably on the rise.

So much so that in December 2021, Jerusalem’s church leaders issued a joint statement warning that Christians have become a frequent target for attacks by Jewish settlers, who aim to “diminish” the Christian presence in the city, much like other places across the occupied territories. The many appeals they sent to the Israeli government to safeguard Christians against settler attacks fell on deaf ears.

From the beginning of this year well into April, an unprecedented wave of vandalism and harassment was reported. That included - but was not limited to - vandalism at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, the Church of the Flagellation, and the Protestant Cemetery.

Whilst some arrests were made in connection with the incidents, often ending without any convictions, physical and verbal harassment remained outside the realm of punishable acts.

When pressured or called out, the Israeli police would ask the harassing settlers to step back and move away from Palestinian worshippers. When Palestinians react to settler abuse, they are met with violence by the police.

The conceivably ‘unwinnable situation’ has led some in the city to turn the other cheek, fearing that reacting would bring upon them the wrath of both the Israeli state and its unbridled herds of settlers. It could escalate to physical abuse, hefty fines, or arrest.

The Israeli state’s official narrative remains that those settlers are only a flock of fanatic rebels operating outside the government’s authority and only motivated by extremist Biblical interpretations.

The issue here is not the government’s justification or lack thereof, but its separation between what is official and what is not.

"The de-Christinisation of Palestine is meant to alter the historical and native character of the land in a fashion favouring Zionism’s founding myths"

Placing the settlers outside the state’s official sphere relieves Israel of its responsibilities before the international community. It also allows it to use the settlers as a blunt tool to evict Palestinians without being visibly accountable. As if to say, it is not an Israeli official policy to de-Palestinise the city, but mostly the deeds of a group of religious extremists.

On the ground, it is a different reality. Immediately after it occupied East Jerusalem in June 1967, Israel carried out plans to de-Palestinise Jerusalem, including the city’s Christian Quarter. Jerusalemites have been targeted with evictions, hefty taxation, the planting of settlements in their midst, denial of building permits, home demolitions, poor municipal services, and neglected infrastructure.

These practices have been in the making for decades, long before religious Zionism - to which most of the settler saboteurs are attributed - became a meaningful player in Israel’s decision-making process.

Before 1967, Christians represented 20% of Jerusalem’s residents and 10% of the entire Palestinian Arab population. Today, Jerusalem is the home of roughly 15,000 Christians, making up only 2% of the population.


The rise of Israel’s fascism has deepened their difficulties beyond the daily struggles of living under occupation to the threat of being stripped of their means to survive physically and as a distinct identity.

Think of the fact that the Orthodox Church owns nearly 30% of the land within the Old City and large swathes of the Mount of Olives, and for so long these possessions represented a kind of insurance for the community’s survival in the city. But today, the Jerusalem Municipality has plans to expand the Western Wall Biblical Park to cover the entirety of the Mount of Olives.

The de-Christinisation of Palestine is meant to alter the historical and native character of the land in a fashion favouring Zionism’s founding myths.

More importantly, without the land’s Christians, Israel will be able to decontextualise and market its military occupation of Palestinians as a Jewish-Muslim conflict, or a Muslim animosity against Jews, a myth it has been actively pushing for decades.

Dr Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher and writer specialising in the political psychology of intergroup and conflict dynamics, focusing on MENA with a special interest in Israel/Palestine. He has a background in human rights and journalism, and is currently a frequent contributor to multiple academic and media outlets, in addition to being a consultant for a US-based think tank.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

Have questions or comments? Email us at:

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.