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Jerusalem: Catholic patriarch decries spike in anti-Christian attacks by Israelis

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, says new far-right Israeli government has emboldened extremists
Pierbattista Pizzaballa leads a Christmas midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank (AFP/file photo)

Christians in Palestine have come under increasing attacks since the inauguration of the new, far-right Israeli government, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Jerusalem said on Thursday. 

Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Vatican-appointed Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, told The Associated Press in an interview that life for Christians in the birthplace of Christianity has worsened since, with extremists being emboldened to harass clergy and vandalise religious property at an alarming rate.

“The frequency of these attacks, the aggressions, has become something new,” Pizzaballa said.

“These people feel they are protected… that the cultural and political atmosphere now can justify, or tolerate, actions against Christians.”

Anti-Christian attacks by Israelis in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Israel have increased in recent months, deepening the fears of Palestinian Christians for their safety, according to church leaders

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In January, Israeli youths vandalised a Christian cemetery in Jerusalem over the New Year holidays, smashing crosses and knocking down headstones on more than 30 graves.

Two Israelis entered the Church of Gethsemane a month later and physically attacked an archbishop and a priest during a religious service.

Pizzaballa's warning comes ahead of Easter celebrations set to take place this weekend amid heightened tensions. 

On Wednesday, church leaders in Jerusalem condemned a decision by Israeli forces to impose tight restrictions on people wishing to visit the Holy Sepulchre Church to celebrate Easter.

Israeli police said they will slash the number of worshippers allowed to attend by 80 percent in order to maintain safety. 

However, church leaders branded the decision an affront to the rights and freedoms of the local Christian community, vowing not to comply with it. 

"We shall continue to uphold the status quo customs, and the ceremony will be held as customary for two millennia, and all who wish to worship with us are invited to attend," the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the Custody of the Holy Land, and the Armenian Patriarchate said in a joint statement.

The new restrictions mean that only 1,800 people will be allowed inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with another 1,200 outside, instead of the 10,000 worshippers that typically come during Easter.

The annual holy fire ceremony, the most important Easter celebration for the Eastern Orthodox Church, is set to take place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Saturday.

Israel's restrictions on worshippers coming to the Holy Sepulchre comes after it cancelled hundreds of permits for Palestinian Christians in Gaza who were hoping to visit Jerusalem for Easter, Saint Porphyrios Orthodox Church said.

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