Friday, November 4, 2011

Blessed also are the spat upon
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

"Blessed are the meek. . .
 Blessed are the merciful. . .
 Blessed are the peacemakers. . . ."

The Beatitudes from Matthew 5.
The Gospel for All Saints Sunday.

Blessed also are the spat upon.

Before we moved to Jerusalem fifteen months ago, we had to go on a shopping trip to purchase a black suit and a regular supply of black clergy shirts (The last time I owned a clerical collar was in the late 1970s after graduating from seminary).  In the old city of Jerusalem, religion is evident by the clothes we wear, especially for religious leaders.  Because Christians are such a small minority--less than 2 % of the population-- it is important, that the Christian presence is evident in the landscape of old stone churches and historical sites going back to the New Testament and the early Christian community.

There is no hiding the fact that we are Christians.
  • The reaction by many is one of respect and admiration--Arab shop keepers address me as Abuna, our father.
  • The reaction by others is indifference, as if we are a relic of the past.
  • The reaction of others--only a few--is ridicule (not so much for us personally, but for colleagues in ministry).
Blessed also are the spat upon.

On the first Thursday of every month, I (Fred) meet with an ecumenical colleague group for coffee and discussion of issues facing the local Christian community.  I'm the only American.  There is a French Catholic priest, a Syrian Orthodox restaurant owner, a Greek Catholic priest, and a Greek Orthodox layman, several Armenians, both clergy and lay.  Yesterday we began our discussion with international issues like the status of the Christian communities in Syria and Egypt.  Then the topic turned to the need to get local Christians more involved in ecumenical gatherings.

Then the topic turned to spitting.  That's right, spitting.  Or to be more accurate, the phenomenon of being spat upon.
"It's getting a lot worse," mentioned one of the life-long residents of the old city.
"No, it's always been this way, " countered an 80-year old Greek Orthodox layman.
"We have grown accustomed to it," said the Armenian priest, "but some of our younger teachers have a hard time turning the other cheek.  They want to strike back."
"Maybe we need to retaliate," said another.
"No, let the police handle it."
"They never do anything.  We have complained in the past.  What good has it done?"

Finally, one of the elders in our group reminded us all that we are Christ's representatives in Jerusalem.  Ours must always be a message of peace--both in word and action.  "They will spit at our shoes, and sometimes in our face, but we must always be messengers of peace."

Blessed also are the spat upon.

Spitting on Clergy.  That's probably not a topic that comes up in many American clergy gatherings.  But it does here.  Again, I stress that I haven't often been directly affected.  Perhaps it's my obvious American identity. Perhaps it's my size.  Local clergy are more often targeted. 

Yet we are called to accompany, to listen, to console, to sympathize, to stand alongside when others are humiliated.  Accompaniment also means communicating, not just positive stories, but also such aspects of daily humiliation of the Christian community in Jerusalem. 

Blessed also are the spat upon.

Yesterday's discussion is not an isolated complaint.

We woke up this morning to read the following story in the Israeli Haaretz newspaper.  A quick google search yields other reports as the Jerusalem Post article two years ago.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting attacks on Old City clergymen becoming daily

Clergymen in the Armenian Church in Jerusalem say they are victims of harassment, from senior cardinals to priesthood students; when they do complain, the police don't usually find the perpetrators.

By Oz Rosenberg

Ha'aretz -- Friday - November 4, 2011
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish young men curse and spit at Christian clergymen in the streets of Jerusalem's Old City as a matter of routine. In most cases the clergymen ignore the attacks, but sometimes they strike back. Last week the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court quashed the indictment against an Armenian priesthood student who had punched the man who spat at him.
Johannes Martarsian was walking in the Old City in May 2008 when an young ultra-Orthodox Jew spat at him. Maratersian punched the spitter in the face, making him bleed, and was charged for assault. But Judge Dov Pollock, who unexpectedly annulled the indictment, wrote in his verdict that "putting the defendant on trial for a single blow at a man who spat at his face, after suffering the degradation of being spat on for years while walking around in his church robes is a fundamental contravention of the principles of justice and decency."
"Needless to say, spitting toward the defendant when he was wearing the robe is a criminal offense," the judge said.
When Narek Garabedian came to Israel to study in the Armenian Seminary in Jerusalem half a year ago, he did not expect the insults, curses and spitting he would be subjected to daily by ultra-Orthodox Jews in the streets of the Old City.
"When I see an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man coming toward me in the street, I always ask myself if he will spit at me," says Narek, a Canadian Armenian, this week. About a month ago, on his way to buy groceries in the Old City, two ultra-Orthodox men spat at him. The spittle did not fall at his feet but on his person. Narek, a former football player, decided this time not to turn the other cheek.
"I was very angry. I pushed them both to the wall and asked, 'why are you doing this?' They were frightened and said 'we're sorry, we're sorry,' so I let them go. But it isn't always like that. Sometimes the spitter attacks you back," he says.
Other clergymen in the Armenian Church in Jerusalem say they are all victims of harassment, from the senior cardinals to the priesthood students. Mostly they ignore these incidents. When they do complain, the police don't usually find the perpetrators.
Martarsian left Israel about a year ago. He was sent back home by the church, as were two other Armenian priesthood students who were charged after attacking an ultra-Orthodox man who spat at them.
The Greek Patriarchy's clergymen have been cursed and spat on by ultra-Orthodox men in the street for many years. "They walk past me and spit," says Father Gabriel Bador, 78, a senior priest in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. "Mostly I ignore it, but it's difficult.
Sometimes I stop and ask the spitter 'why are you doing this? What have I done to you?' Once I even shouted at a few of them who spat at my feet together. They ran away," he says.
"It happens a lot," says Archbishop Aristarchos, the chief secretary of the patriarchate. "You walk down the street and suddenly they spit at you for no reason. I admit sometimes it makes me furious, but we have been taught to restrain ourselves, so I do so."
Father Goosan Aljanian, Chief Dragoman of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem, says it is often difficult for temperamental young priesthood students to swallow the offense.
About a month ago two students marching to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre beat up an ultra-Orthodox man who spat at them. They were sent away from the Old City for two weeks.
"I tell my students that if they are spat at, to go to the police rather than strike back" says Goosan. "But these are young kids who sometimes lose their cool."
A few weeks ago four ultra-Orthodox men spat at clergymen in the funeral procession of Father Alberto of the Armenian Church. "They came in a pack, out of nowhere," said Father Goosan. "I know there are fanatical Haredi groups that don't represent the general public but it's still enraging. It all begins with education. It's the responsibility of these men's yeshiva heads to teach them not to behave this way," he says.
Father Goosan and other Patriarchy members are trying to walk as little as possible in the Old City streets. "Once we walked from the [Armenian] church to the Jaffa Gate and on that short section four different people spat at us," he says.

And a similar story two years ago. . .
 Mouths filled with hatred

Nov. 26, 2009


Father Samuel Aghoyan, a senior Armenian Orthodox cleric in Jerusalem's Old City, says he's been spat at by young haredi and national Orthodox Jews "about 15 to 20 times" in the past decade. The last time it happened, he said, was earlier this month. "I was walking back from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and I saw this boy in a yarmulke and ritual fringes coming back from the Western Wall, and he spat at me two or three times."
Wearing a dark-blue robe, sitting in St. James's Church, the main Armenian church in the Old City, Aghoyan said, "Every single priest in this church has been spat on. It happens day and night."
Father Athanasius, a Texas-born Franciscan monk who heads the Christian Information Center inside the Jaffa Gate, said he's been spat at by haredi and national Orthodox Jews "about 15 times in the last six months" - not only in the Old City, but also on Rehov Agron near the Franciscan friary. "One time a bunch of kids spat at me, another time a little girl spat at me," said the brown-robed monk near the Jaffa Gate.
"All 15 monks at our friary have been spat at," he said. "Every [Christian cleric in the Old City] who's been here for awhile, who dresses in robes in public, has a story to tell about being spat at. The more you get around, the more it happens."
A nun in her 60s who's lived in an east Jerusalem convent for decades says she was spat at for the first time by a haredi man on Rehov Agron about 25 years ago. "As I was walking past, he spat on the ground right next to my shoes and he gave me a look of contempt," said the black-robed nun, sitting inside the convent. "It took me a moment, but then I understood."
Since then, the nun, who didn't want to be identified, recalls being spat at three different times by young national Orthodox Jews on Jaffa Road, three different times by haredi youth near Mea She'arim and once by a young Jewish woman from her second-story window in the Old City's Jewish Quarter.
But the spitting incidents weren't the worst, she said - the worst was the time she was walking down Jaffa Road and a group of middle-aged haredi men coming her way pointed wordlessly to the curb, motioning her to move off the sidewalk to let them pass, which she did.
"That made me terribly sad," said the nun, speaking in ulpan-trained Hebrew. Taking personal responsibility for the history of Christian anti-Semitism, she said that in her native European country, such behavior "was the kind of thing that they - no, that we used to do to Jews."
News stories about young Jewish bigots in the Old City spitting on Christian clergy - who make conspicuous targets in their long dark robes and crucifix symbols around their necks - surface in the media every few years or so. It's natural, then, to conclude that such incidents are rare, but in fact they are habitual. Anti-Christian Orthodox Jews, overwhelmingly boys and young men, have been spitting with regularity on priests and nuns in the Old City for about 20 years, and the problem is only getting worse.

"My impression is that Christian clergymen are being spat at in the Old City virtually every day. This has been constantly increasing over the last decade," said Daniel Rossing. An observant, kippa-wearing Jew, Rossing heads the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations and was liaison to Israel's Christian communities for the Ministry of Religious Affairs in the '70s and '80s.
For Christian clergy in the Old City, being spat at by Jewish fanatics "is a part of life," said the American Jewish Committee's Rabbi David Rosen, Israel's most prominent Jewish interfaith activist.

"I hate to say it, but we've grown accustomed to this. Jewish religious fanatics spitting at Christian priests and nuns has become a tradition," said Roman Catholic Father Massimo Pazzini, sitting inside the Church of the Flagellation on the Via Dolorosa.

These are the very opposite of isolated incidents. Father Athanasius of the Christian Information Center called them a "phenomenon." George Hintlian, the unofficial spokesman for the local Armenian community and former secretary of the Armenian Patriarchate, said it was "like a campaign."

 (The Jerusalem Post)
Blessed also are the spat upon.
by Fred & Gloria Strickert