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Hegumen Nikon (Golovko): We should not tacitly tolerate the oppression in the Holy Land

Hegumen Nikon (Golovko): We should not tacitly tolerate the oppression in the Holy Land
Version for print
30 January 2022 year 12:29

In recent months, disturbing signals keep coming ever more frequently about the beginning of real persecution against Christian confessions. The problem has not bypassed the Russian Church eitherl: according to Hegumen Nikon (Golovko), there are places, which have become real ‘hotbeds’ for Orthodox Christians and where conflicts have been breaking out with frightening regularity. The secretary of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem told portal about what is happening today in the Holy Land, about vandalism, attempts to seize church property and about street fights.

-   Father Nikon, the impression is that attacks against Christian confessions in the Holy Land happen with a frightening regularity. Is it true? If so, then when did it start, since the pandemic?

-   Yes, the destructive processes intensified with the beginning of the pandemic and the lockdown chains in Israel. The closure fr om the external world, the end of the inflow of tourists and pilgrims has strongly affected the social classes involved in this or that way in the sphere of tourism: the absence of income, lack of confidence, growing psychological pressure of conditions have played their role as people have begun to lose patience and social conflicts have flared up. Clashes between Muslims and Judaists have become more frequent; cases of attacks on the property of Christian churches and animosity towards Christians themselves have grown, and the number of the acts of vandalism and, in short, on the whole the degree of religious intolerance has risen.

Concurrently we also point out that due to the absence of pilgrims, many Christian churches have become drastically empty; multitudes of visiting Christians are not seen now in pilgrimage places, and that this seeming emptiness seems to inspire some ‘hotheads’ from local radical religious groups the idea that now is the time to bring out their claims to Christian lands and non-movable assents.

-   So problems have begun?

- In the last two years, we have seen growing problems caused by religious radicalism on our Russian plots of land and in our churches in the Holy Land. For instance, only for the last year, there were three cases of illegal penetration into the territory of the Gorneye Convent, and one of them was an attempt to burst into the church of Our Lady of Kazan. Last year in our Jaffa representation, there were several cases of encroachment on the church property and a glaring act of vandalism when an unknown person, having penetrated into the territory of the representation, destroyed several crosses at the Orthodox cemetery and defiled graves. The Mission’s representation at the Sea of Galilee in Magdala, known to our pilgrims for the wonderful warm radon springs and remarkable views of the lake, in recent years has become a real ‘hotbed’, as attempts are made almost weekly to penetrate into the territory. There were acts of vandalism with even threats to the sisters living in the representation. In this connection, the Russian Embassy has sent several diplomatic notes to the Israeli Foreign Office.

-   Does this problem concern only the Russian Church, Orthodox Churches or all the Christians in the Holy Land?

-    Alas, this problem concerns all the Christians in the Holy Land. For instance, thanks to the efforts of Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem, the world public is growing increasingly aware of the grave situation, which has developed today around the Patriarchate of Jerusalem’s two guesthouses, the most popular among pilgrims, which are located in the square at Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate: the local radical religious organization claims that it has acquired the property right for these premises. Thus, it is not only that law is violated since the existence of such a transaction is out of question, but the point is that undermined are the very foundations of the status quo - the way of life of Judaic, Christian and Islamic people.

We know about numerous attacks of radical Judaists on Armenian seminarians and priests: in Zion, wh ere the theological seminary of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem is located, real street fights happen at times. There are also more frequent attacks on monasteries belonging to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

- When we were preparing for the talk, you mentioned that there is also street violence and insults directed at priests and lay people, and you have now confirmed this. What is the most glaring case that has happened recently?

-   I recall the case that happened about two years ago when some 20 seminarians and the dean of the Armenian Seminary who accompanied them, a cleric of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, were injured in a clash with a group with religious Jews, who not only used physical violence but also incited a dog on them. As a result of that incident, several seminarians and the seminary dean were taken to hospital. In this connection, the Armenian Patriarchate appealed to the police and published a proclamation stressing the regular nature of attacks on Armenian clergy and students and pointing to the inaction of the police.

-   You said they would refuse serving you even in a shop. Was such a thing possible before?

-   In a shop, at least in a large supermarket, you cannot be denied service, of course, but they can do it in a small shop in a city area with a prevailing Jewish population. The same happens in the market, only much more frequently.

-   What is more serious is the problem of pressing Christians out of all the spheres of social life. It is interesting, indeed Israel is a national state on one hand, and among its citizens there are quite a lot of baptized Jews. Can they ‘get it in the neck’ as well? Overall, how does this ‘pressing out’ looks like, in examples?

-    You are right, precisely in examples: I say nothing about Orthodox Arabs. They are the least protected section of society; life is not sweet for baptized Jews either. There are known cases of insults and mockery in state-run schools, in nursing homes and bias at work. For this reason, some families, who originally sought a possibility for a safe and successful life in Israel, decide to leave for countries with the prevailing Christian population, such as Canada. USA or Europe.

-   You have already mentioned the encroachment on church property. Tell is about it in more detail.

-   Yes, as I have already mentioned in part, all the Christian communities of the Holy Land, not only Orthodox, but also Catholic, Anglican and others carry out a continuous work to preserve their plots of land and buildings purchased for religious needs with the money of their compatriots and to prevent such claims in the future. A special attention should be given to problems of taxation in Israel: for Christians, it takes much effort to prove to local authorities that religious facilities and profitless establishments should not pay the municipal tax. Recently, if you remember, even the Church of the Lord’s Sepulchre was closed for days as a protest of Christians against the unfair and suffocating taxes imposed on religious establishments in Israel.

-   But ‘the pilgrimage tourism’ (I will use this term) seems to me to be a serious income item for the state and local business. No? Even this argument does not work here?

-   As the last two years have shown, Israel can continue living without tourism just as well. This income item has proved to be not so essential in the whole budget of the country. Yes, the absence of tourists and pilgrims has delivered a blow on some sections of the population, especially Arab and Christian, as they work in the tourist service, but overall, the state has shown its viability. Israel is successfully trading in IT-technologies; the banking system is very much developed here and, as experts say, precisely these spheres of business are strategic for the country.

However, the Judaic pilgrims are not to be forgotten as they come to Israel in a great number to venerate the Wailing Wall; actually, their inflow has not decreased even at the most ‘closed’ months of the pandemic.

-   What is your vision of coming out of this situation? Clearly, somebody should interfere...

-   I am confident that with the end of the pandemic, life in the Holy Land as a whole will return to its ordinary more or less calm course, but there is another important thing: these years have shown to us, Christians, that we should not tacitly tolerate the oppressions in the Holy Land. On the contrary, we should unite and speak loudly and clearly about the existing problems and involve international forces to the resolution of conflicts flaring up here and use every effort to preserve the Christian presence in the greatest holy places of the world.

Interviewer Vladimir Basenkov

DECR Communication Service/

Version: Russian, Greek

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