Church leaders are defending the need for a Christian presence in the Old City of Jerusalem, as some report increased vandalism, verbal abuse, and aggressive property acquisition by Jewish settlers.

“Today the church faces a most severe threat at the hands of certain settler groups. The settlers are persistent in their attempts to erode the presence of the Christian community in Jerusalem,” said the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, in an interview with the Guardian.

“These radical settler groups are highly organised. Over the last years we have witnessed the desecration and vandalism of an unprecedented number of churches and holy sites and receive growing numbers of reports from priests and local worshippers who have been assaulted and attacked,” he continued.

Catholic institutions and individuals have also been subject to such attacks, according Jerusalem-based Catholic priest, Father David Neuhaus, an affiliate of the Pontifical Biblical Institute.

“What Patriarch Theophilos describes is correct in that church properties and Christian individuals have been attacked,” Father Neuhaus told CNA.

“The attackers make no distinction among the Christian denomination,” explained Fr. Neuhaus. “Of course, Catholic institutions and individuals have had their share in bearing the brunt of these attacks.”

Most of the Christians in Israel are Arabs belonging to either the Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or Roman Catholic Churches.

The Benedictine Dormition Abbey has been vandalized on five different occasions in recent years, with anti-Christian graffiti written in Hebrew.

Vandals shattered stained-glass windows and destroyed a statue of Mary in St. Stephen Church in the Beit Jamal Salesian monastery, 25 miles west of Jerusalem, in September 2017.

The Order of the Holy Sepulchre recently contributed funds for a fence project to protect another vandalized Catholic church in Nazareth, 90 miles north of Jerusalem, from future attacks.

However, Fr. Neuhaus said that it is important to remember that “these attacks are equally against Muslims” and “many more mosques are targeted than churches.” He says that the settler violence is directed against all non-Jews.

“The question of settler and right-wing vigilante violence is an important phenomenon in Israeli society and deeply affects Christians and Muslims,” said Fr. Neuhaus.

The Executive Director of “In Defence of Christians,” Philippe Nassif, told CNA he is “concerned about Christian holy sites in Jerusalem being targeted by extremists on all sides.”

“It is important that Christians feel free to worship, work, and live in Israel without the fear of violence from a handful of extremists, and we urge the Israeli government to bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice,” continued Nassif.

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem also emphasized the importance of the Christian community in Jerusalem last week.

“The identity of Jerusalem would not be complete without a living and vibrant Christian presence. The Holy Places and the presence of many pilgrims are not enough to affirm the Christian character of the City: without the presence of a local community, alive and active, there cannot be a Church,” wrote Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the patriarchate, in a letter to the Latin Parish in Jerusalem May 3.

Archbishop Pizzaballa said the Church is considering creating a second parish in Jerusalem to strengthen the Christian presence.

“It is a priority and fundamental for all of us, therefore, to not only preserve, but rather to strengthen our presence in Jerusalem and preserve the Christian character of the Holy City,” wrote the archbishop.

On May 14, the United States will open its new embassy in Jerusalem, making the U.S. the first country to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel since the state was established in 1948.

After President Donald Trump announced the change last December, Pope Francis expressed his “deep concern” and issued an appeal to the international community to ensure that “everyone is committed to respecting the status quo of the city, in accordance with the relevant Resolutions of the United Nations.”

Pope Francis also urged the necessity of maintaining the status quo in his meeting with Theophilos III in October 2017, in which the two discussed the patriarch’s concern for the Christian community amid aggression by Jewish settlers.

The pope said, “any kind of violence, discrimination or displays of intolerance against Jewish, Christian and Muslim worshipers, or places of worship, must be firmly rejected. The Holy City, whose Status Quo must be defended and preserved, ought to be a place where all can live together peaceably; otherwise, the endless spiral of suffering will continue for all.”