Most people, most of the time, are fundamentally decent. Hence if they knew that there’s a minority facing an epidemic of persecution — a staggering total of 150,000 martyrs every year, meaning 17 deaths every hour — there would almost certainly be a groundswell of moral and political outrage.
There is such a minority in the world today, and it’s Christianity. The fact that there isn’t yet a broad-based movement to fight anti-Christian persecution suggests something is missing in public understanding.
In part, of course, the problem is that unquestionable acts of persecution, such as murder and imprisonment, are sometimes confused with a perceived cultural and legal “war on religion” in the West, a less clear-cut proposition. In part, too, it’s because of the antique prejudice that holds that Christianity is always the oppressor, never the oppressed.
Yet as with most things, politics also has a distorting effect, and a story out of Israel this week makes the point.
On Tuesday, the doors of a Trappist monastery in Latrun, near Jerusalem, were set ablaze, with provocative phrases in Hebrew spray-painted on the exteriors walls, such as “Jesus is a monkey.” The assault was attributed to extremist Jews unhappy with the recent dismantling of two settlements on nearby Palestinian land.
Founded in 1890 by French Trappists, the Latrun monastery is famed for its strict religious observance. Israelis call it minzar ha’shatkanim, meaning “the monastery of those who don’t speak.” Ironically, it’s known for fostering dialogue with Judaism, and welcomes hundreds of Jewish visitors every week.
Tuesday’s attack was not an isolated incident. In 2009, a Franciscan church near the Cenacle on Mount Zion, regarded by tradition as the site of Christ’s Last Supper, was defaced with a spray-painted Star of David and slogans such as “Christians Out!” and “We Killed Jesus!” According to reports, the vandals also urinated on the door and left a trail of urine leading to the church.
Last February, the Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land wrote to Israeli authorities to appeal for better protection after another wave of vandalism struck a Baptist church, a Christian cemetery and a Greek Orthodox monastery. That time, slogans included “Death to Christianity,” “We will crucify you!” and “Mary is a whore.”
At the time, the custodian, Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, complained that no arrests had been made in any of these cases.
Israeli observers say these assaults are part of what’s called the “price tag” campaign, meaning the vow by extremists that a price will be paid every time a settlement is dismantled — not just by those actually responsible for the demolition, but also by groups in Israeli society, such as the Christian minority, perceived to support the Palestinians and the ending of settlements. Frequent targets also include mosques, places of gathering for Arabs, and Israeli pacifists.
The assaults on Christian holy sites also reflect a nasty, if little-discussed, streak of broader anti-Christian animus in some Israeli circles. Local priests have reported that sometimes Yeshiva students chant insulting slogans at them, or even throw stones and spit in their direction.
The Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land released a statement in reaction to the latest attack.
”What is happening in Israeli society to the point that Christians are the sacrificial lambs of such violence?” they asked. “Those who left their hate-filled graffiti expressed outrage at the eviction of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But why are they taking it out on Christians and their places of worship?”