On May 31, 2013, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, the Reverend Gradye Parsons, sent a letter to the Reverend Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, expressing concern over the recent violations of the rights and the physical abuse of Orthodox and other Christian worshippers in Jerusalem.

Ruling elder Robert Trawick, an associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, N.Y., and a commissioner to the 220th General Assembly (2012) who served on the Middle East Peacemaking Issues Committee, prepared the following statement as context and background to Parsons’s letter:

“The Holy Fire ceremony is one of the most important religious occasions in the life of Orthodox Christians.  The ceremony takes place on the eve of the Orthodox celebration of Easter when a lamp in the tomb of Jesus at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is kindled.  The flame is immediately passed by candles to thousands of worshippers.  At this time an olive lamp is also lit and quickly transferred to the West Bank town of Bethlehem.  The flame is then passed to other Orthodox Christian communities throughout the world.

In recent years access to this ceremony and other religious events taking place in the Old City of Jerusalem has become increasingly difficult for Christians living in the area.  West Bank and Gaza Palestinians have extremely limited access to these sites and Jerusalem Palestinians are finding it harder to gain entry to places of worship even on the holiest days in their calendar.  Access is controlled by a permit system administered by the Israeli government, a system which has been described as arbitrary and unduly restrictive of freedom of worship.

This year thousands of Israeli police officers were deployed on the eve of Orthodox Easter to provide security for the massive celebration.  The security, however, became increasingly aggressive and a number of worshippers and clergy were beaten as they tried to make their way closer to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  The Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem issued a statement bearing witness to these acts and calling for their condemnation, writing:

We understand the necessity and the importance of security forces to ensure order and stability, and for organizing the celebration of the Holy Fire at the Church of the Resurrection.  Yet, it is not acceptable that under the pretext of security and order, our clergy and people are indiscriminately and brutally beaten, and prevented from entering their churches, monasteries and convents.

This year’s actions are part of a pattern of increasingly aggressive actions by Israeli security forces dating back a decade or more.  The US State Department International Religious Freedom Report, found ‘[p]referential treatment [was given] to Jews celebrating Passover and to international visitors making pilgrimages when the authorities enacted restrictions that impeded the activities of local Christians celebrating Easter.  Jerusalem Christians had to pass through four police checkpoints before reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; according to Christian advocates, pepper spray was used indiscriminately at the various checkpoints.’

The Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem have called for an end to such restrictive practices, demanding full access to the Holy sites during the Holy Weeks in both Christian calendars.  Members of the local Palestinian community were even more passionate in their demands, with a Facebook group identified as Palestinian Christians calling on church leaders to ‘[s]ay a word of truth to the Israeli authorities.  Let Christians reach freely their Church on the day of their feast.’”

The full text of Parsons’s letter:

May 31, 2013

The Reverend Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Ambassador Cook:

I am writing in the name of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and on behalf of our Christian partners who have been abused by the Israeli authorities as they attempted to celebrate Orthodox Easter in the city of Jerusalem. Not only have the Israeli military denied access of many of our Christian friends to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other holy sites in this holy season.  In addition, the Israeli military has alarmed Christians throughout the world by openly assaulting clergy leaders, including the beating of 85-year-old cleric, Fr. Arsanios, head of the Coptic Church in Ramallah, an incident recorded on video.

I repeat here a part of the statement sent to the Israeli government in the wake of this violence against Christian worshippers:

“We, the Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem, watched with sorrowful hearts the horrific scene of the brutal treatment of our clergy, people and pilgrims in the Old City of Jerusalem during Holy Saturday last week. A day of joy and celebration was turned to great sorrow and pain for some of the faithful because they were mistreated by some Israeli policemen who were present around the gates of the Old City and passages that lead to the Holy Sepulchre.”

While we join the church leaders in acknowledging that security is necessary for the safety of participants and the ordering of the passage of pilgrims to the holy sites, there is no excuse for meting out physical punishment on those who are simply pressing forward to worship in these holy places.

While we wish to call these particular abridgements of religious freedom to your attention, we also want to express our growing concern over what appears to be the use of military permits to control/restrict the movement of visitors, including our fellow church-workers, many of whom have come to work with partners not only in Israel, but also in the West Bank. We have reported evidence that they have been required to sign affidavits that aver that they will not enter Area A or any area under Israeli occupational control without a special military permit, issued by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. Some who have signed the statement have been sent on their way without being fully informed as to how to get the military permit that will allow them to enter the West Bank and, as a result, are not able to do so.

These draconian measures not only create anxiety on the part of visitors and religious workers. They create a substantial barrier to the effort of members of the Christian community to fulfill their missions of humanitarian aid, compassion and support for our Palestinian partners.

We shall be most grateful if your office will inquire into these matters, which seem to us to be an egregious violation of religious freedom.

Sincerely yours,

Gradye Parsons

cc. Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.