Proving that Israel is not a democratic state that enjoys religious freedoms, the Israeli government has refused to recognize the new leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, Patriarch Irenaios. Citing security concerns and Irenaios’ close relations with the Palestinians, the Israelis believe that he is not the best man for the job.
However, Israeli political analysts believe that the source of contention is the vast lands owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, namely the land around the Knesset in Israel proper and occupied Jerusalem. The Sharon government believes that Irenaios is an avid supporter of Palestinian rights and could inadvertently influence the situation.
It seems the Sharon posse is not satisfied with their little fiasco last month when they barred Palestinian President Yasser Arafat from attending Christmas mass in Bethlehem. Arafat, a Muslim married to a Christian woman, has been attending the mass since 1995. However, the Israeli government decided to punish Arafat for not doing enough to crack down on militants within his own camp. The Israeli decision was met with a public outcry from the Vatican who called it "arbitrarily imposed" and pleaded with Sharon to recind his decree "in order to try to create a more conciliatory climate in the area."
According to the New York Times (December 25, 2001), both Israeli President Moshe Katsav and Defense Binyamin Ben-Eliezer opposed Sharon’s decision. There were reports that Ben-Eliezer had called Sharon’s decision "awful and idiotic."
"This is a silly, inflammatory and unjustified decision," said Industry and Trade Minister Dalia Itzik of the Labor party.
Despite international condemnation, Sharon went on to bar Arafat from attending Orthodox Christmas celebrations on January 7.
The heat on the Palestinian Christian community has been steadily rising.
Earlier in December, a sixth-grade teacher at the state religious elementary school of Orot in Beit Shemesh, Israel, held a public burning of the New Testament. The New Testament belonged to a student who had received it from a Christian missionary. An Orot spokesperson told Ha’aretz newspaper that "We regret that this incident occurred. The intentions were not to criticize Christianity, but only to tell these Jewish boys that they don't have to listen to the missionaries" (Ha’aretz, January 14, 2002).
Not listening to missionaries is one thing. Burning a holy scripture is quite another. Try religious persecution and bigotry.
- Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Muslim Canadian journalist living on the Pacific Coast.