The heads of the Anglican and Lutheran churches in Canada have written a series of letters to the federal government voicing concern about violence in Israel and Palestine—including one seeking a discussion with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after a Protestant cemetery under the oversight of the Anglican Church in Jerusalem was vandalized Jan. 3.
Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, and Bishop Susan Johnson, national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), sent an open letter to Trudeau Jan. 17 in which they expressed concern over what they call the desecration of Mt. Zion Cemetery. Israeli police said many tombstones were damaged.
Security video shared on social media depicted two men wearing kippot, brimless hats traditionally worn by some Jewish men, pulling down tombstones and damaging graves by dropping stones and masonry on them.
Two arrests were reported to have been made in connection with the incident, and the commander of the Jerusalem police met with church leaders and offered to help fix the damage. In a tweet, Israel’s foreign ministry condemned the act.
The leaders of the two churches, which are full communion partners, cited other attacks on Christian communities and places of worship in the Holy Land—in particular, a raid by the Israeli military last August on St. Andrew’s Anglican/Episcopal Church in Ramallah. Israeli soldiers who conducted the attack were seeking the offices of a Palestinian human rights organization, Al-Haq, which rented space in the church building but had its own entrance.
“We urge the government of Canada to express its concern for the safety and dignity of the Christian community in the Holy Land and to support the right to security of its people, buildings and property,” Nicholls and Johnson said.
Referring to a previous letter Nicholls sent to Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly Aug. 24, the church leaders added, “We believe Canada’s continued silence on the escalation of assaults of various kinds against Christians by Israel’s religious extremists and illegal settlers emboldens such violations of international law and universal human rights.”
While encouraged by Israel’s condemnation of the vandalism and arrest of the alleged perpetrators, Nicholls and Johnson said they remained concerned and sought an opportunity to discuss these issues with Trudeau.
Nicholls told the Anglican Journal that the Jan. 17 letter was a response to a statement by Archbishop Hosam Naoum of the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem asking for the support of partners around the world. The letter followed a December trip to Israel and Palestine by Nicholls and Johnson during which, the primate said, “we had both heard and seen from Christians in the Holy Land of how difficult it is for them.” Most Christians in the region, she said, are Palestinian and live in the West Bank, Gaza, or East Jerusalem.
“The new Israeli government is a partnership that includes some very extreme leaders who are making life for Palestinians even harder than it currently is,” Nicholls said. “We saw examples of some of those hardships and we visited St. Andrew’s Church and saw where they’d been invaded by the Israeli forces. This has not happened in the past. In the past, churches have been considered sacred space.”
“The Canadian government has a strong stance in support of international law and the two-state solution, and it is not speaking up in a way that we think it could given the increased activity of the Israeli government in settling in occupied territories, which is against all international law and all international agreements,” the primate said.
If the Canadian government does not raise concerns about attacks on Christians in the Holy Land, Nicholls said, any additional steps would be up to the church to consider. The Anglican Church of Canada will be bringing forward a renewed statement on Israel and Palestine to this summer’s General Synod, she said. “I think that would be a moment for the church to say what it wants to do further.”
On Jan. 27, the two leaders sent a third letter to the prime minister, this one to voice concern about escalating violence in the region after an attack the same day on a synagogue in East Jerusalem.
“As religious leaders, we are particularly grieved that this murderous brutality was directed towards terrorizing people at prayer. We mourn with the families of those who have been killed and pray for those who are wounded,” they wrote.
“We stand in solidarity, on this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, with the Jewish community in Canada and around the world, and firmly decry all forms of antisemitism and religiously motivated hate wherever it occurs.” They implored Trudeau and his government to advocate de-escalation to both sides in the conflict.
Robert Granke, ELCIC member on the advisory committee for the Canadian Companions of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem—an organization that supports the Anglican Church of Canada’s partnership with the diocese—said the Companions share the concern of Nicholls and Johnson at the cemetery vandalism. He said the Companions were grateful that “Israeli authorities have taken swift action and have arrested the alleged perpetrators … Our expectation is that they will be subject to a trial and prosecution by Israeli law if they’re found guilty.
“Fundamentally, all religious sites must be protected in the Holy Land,” he added. “I think that’s the guiding principle here.”
Several other Christian demominations in Canada have endorsed the joint letter, including leaders of Mennonite, Baptist, Presbyterian, United, Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic churches.
As this issue was going to press Feb. 6, neither Trudeau’s nor Joly’s office had responded to a request for comment. Nicholls said neither she nor Johnson had received responses to the letter in August or subsequent ones.