Last week we noted that an April 12th report by the BBC Jerusalem bureau’s Yolande Knell concerning the Holy Fire ceremony due to take place three days later at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem had not been updated to include an explanatory statement put out by the Israeli police on April 13th:
Not only was that report not updated but in the early hours of April 16th the BBC News website published an uncredited report titled ‘Holy Fire celebrated by Christians in Jerusalem amid Israeli police restrictions’ which includes similar talking points to those promoted in Knell’s report.
“Thousands of Christians filled Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday for an important Orthodox Easter ritual, despite restrictions by Israeli police.
The Holy Fire ceremony drew huge crowds to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in occupied East Jerusalem, where Israeli Police control security.
It sits on the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried.
Police had limited attendance to 1,800 people inside and 1,200 outside, citing safety reasons.
Church leaders urged Christians to ignore restrictions and criticised the police presence at the event.”
Readers were also told that:
“In previous years, as many as 10,000 worshippers packed into the church, with many more crowding into the surrounding alleyways of the Old City.
But for the second year running, church leaders were told that access would be considerably restricted over safety concerns.
“We have also sat with external engineers who have told us there is a limit to the crowd size that is allowed inside of the church and due to these statements by the engineers we are limiting the crowds,” police spokesperson Master Sergeant Dean Elsdunne said previously.
Churches reject the claim that restrictions were needed.”
The day after the Israeli police had issued its explanatory statement – April 14th – the Jerusalem Patriarch published a response in which it accused the safety engineer who had compiled the report upon which the attendance limitations were based of “a conflict of interest and lack of good faith professionalism on his part”.
“Over the past two months the David precinct of the Jerusalem district carried out systematic administrative work in preparation for the Holy Fire ceremony. The administrative work included talking with all the denominations in order to try and open another emergency exit in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in order to provide a better response during the event. Unfortunately, all attempts to convince the various denominations to reach an agreement were unsuccessful. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the Interior were called to the effort but to no avail. Because of this, a letter was sent to the heads of the denominations regarding the number of participants that will be allowed to enter the church based on the decision of the High Court from last year and the analysis of the church grounds.
After the letter was issued a response was received from the engineer of the Greek patriarch (who accompanies all events and renovation work for many years) in which the number of participants the church can accommodate is greater than the number approved last year. I asked to have a meeting with the engineer to understand how the quantity changed without any change in the area or the escape exits. At the end of the meeting a new document was received on behalf of the engineer in which he returned to the numbers from last year. Immediately the heads of the denominations rejected the engineer and claimed that he was not the Patriarch’s engineer at all and chose to release another document from an authority that is not authorised to provide and analyse the amount of people and/or areas.
I informed the heads of the denomination in a letter that the person they contacted was not qualified to issue the professional recommendations. As a result, a conflict of trust arose with the community, culminating in a meeting led by the district commander and the Greek patriarch. During the meeting the patriarch asked for our help and apologised that he could not go out and apologise publicly, so we agreed to his request and the next morning for the third time we conducted a field tour with the patriarch’s engineer; the same one who they rejected.
During a field tour the engineer defined the number of participants who would be allowed to enter based on the area analysis and at the end we asked the engineer to provide us with a signed document reflecting the tour.
To our astonishment, after several hours it became clear to us that once again the heads of the denominations renounced the engineer as well as the tour that took place with their approval. Following this, a protocol of the tour together with the signature of the engineer was signed by me and sent to the heads of the denominations as a standard number for the amount of people in the church.
We prepared for the event with a desire to help everyone exercise freedom of worship and freedom of movement together with other government ministries and the municipality of Jerusalem. An amount of approximately one million shekels was invested for the benefit of the participants, in the creation of shaded viewing areas with equipment and television screens for those who cannot enter the church. In the last few days about 2000 police officers worked around the clock in order to serve, with the participants and the denominations choosing time after time to point arrows and words of reproach towards the Jerusalem district police.”
As we see, neither of the BBC News website’s two items concerning the 2023 Holy Fire ceremony reports the background to the church’s rejection of the police safety instructions fully or accurately.
Moreover, in the closing paragraphs of the BBC’s April 16th report, readers find the following:
“The churches say the restrictions as part of long-standing efforts to push out the local Christian community.
They say local Christians have faced increased harassment and violence in recent months in the occupied East of the city, and claim that extremists have become emboldened by the rise of the Israeli far-right.”
The same allegations appeared in another report by Yolande Knell which was published on the BBC News website’s ‘Middle East’ page on April 15th under the headline ‘Jerusalem Christians say attacks on the rise’.
“But in recent months, Christians living in the occupied East of the city say they have seen increased harassment and violence.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III has warned of “unprecedented attacks on the Christian presence by radical Israeli groups”.”
Knell goes on to cite three incidents: the vandalism of tombstones in the Mount Zion cemetery in January by two teenagers who were subsequently arrested and charged, another incident in January in which an Armenian restaurant was vandalised and an incident in February in which an American tourist vandalised a statue in a church before being arrested by the police.
The ‘explanation’ that Knell provides for such incidents reads as follows:
‘”It’s happening because there is hatred and fanaticism, radicalisation of a part of the Israeli society,” says Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate. “It’s a minority of people.”
He suggests the rise of the far right in Israeli politics has played a role. The current Israeli government includes ultranationalists, such as finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, who advocate policies showing intolerance for those who do not share their religion.
“I don’t believe that it is a strategy of the new government to attack churches,” Bishop William says. “But the young people who practise these offences feel in some way protected because they have strong representatives in the government.”’
Notably, Knell did not bother to inform her readers that the heads of Christian denominations in Jerusalem published similar claims before the current Israeli government was sworn in and have been doing so for years:
Knell goes on to state that:
“The holy city of Jerusalem lies at the heart of the Christian faith. However, the number of Christians living here has dropped from a quarter of the population a century ago to under 2%. Many have emigrated, escaping the painful daily realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and seeking better opportunities elsewhere.”
However she refrains from clarifying that the percentage of Christians in Jerusalem’s population is of course relative to the numbers of people of other faiths living in the city. While her claim that a quarter of Jerusalem’s population were Christians “a century ago” is in itself debatable, she does not explain that the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem today include Arab neighbourhoods that were not part of the city in 1923 or that during the Jordanian occupation of Jerusalem (1948 – 1967), the Christian population of the city fell by roughly half.
Also notable is Knell’s categorisation of any property in Jerusalem purchased by Jews (including those sold by the Greek Orthodox church) as a ‘settlement’ and the buyers as “settlers”:
“Jewish settlers are also taking over more and more properties. Settlements are seen as illegal under international law, but Israel disagrees.”
While there is no doubt that, like other sectors of the population, Christians in Jerusalem do experience racially or religiously motivated attacks, there is an important distinction to be made between that and the following unevidenced claim promoted in Knell’s article:
“Many Christians feel that the growing hostility towards them is meant to push them out.”
Knell’s report includes just two paragraphs of comment from the Israeli police but no response from the Jerusalem municipality.
In the five days between April 12th and April 16th the BBC News website published three reports which uncritically and unquestioningly amplify various claims made by church leaders in Jerusalem without adequate presentation of additional aspects of the stories. While there is certainly nothing novel about such uncritical amplification of church publicity campaigns on the part of the BBC (see ‘related articles’ below), it obviously seriously undermines the corporation’s claim to provide accurate and impartial reporting.