Eisa Kassissieh, dressed as Santa Claus, gives away a Christmas tree to nuns in Jerusalem's Old City on December 23, 2021. Image Credit: AP

Jerusalem: Israel has said its Christian population is growing, days after the most senior cleric in the Church of England backed accusations of a “concerted attempt” to drive the community away.

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics said that there were 182,000 Christians in the country, an increase of 1.4 per cent on last year.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby raised hackles in Israel by decrying alongside Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem Hosam Naoum a “steady decline” among Christians in east Jerusalem.

“Church leaders believe that there are now fewer than 2,000 Christians left in the Old City of Jerusalem,” the two wrote in a piece published by The Sunday Times.

They said an “escalation of physical and verbal abuse of Christian clergy, and vandalism of holy sites by fringe, radical groups” was a “concerted attempt” to drive Christians in Israel away.

Their joint letter followed a December 13 plea from church leaders in Jerusalem who alleged that “radical groups continue to acquire strategic property in the Christian Quarter, with the aim of diminishing the Christian presence”.

Israel’s foreign ministry said the accusations were “baseless, and distort the reality of the Christian community in Israel”.

“The Christian population in Israel - including in Jerusalem - enjoys full freedom of religion and of worship, is constantly growing, and is part of the unique fabric of Israeli society,” it said in a statement Monday.

Israel captured east Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, from Jordan in 1967 and annexed it, a move not recognised by most of the international community.

It is home to Christian holy sites including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the faithful believe Jesus was crucified and buried.

Welby and Naoum said Palestinian Christians were leaving the Israel-occupied West Bank due to “the growth of settler communities” and movement restrictions.

The foreign ministry said Israel was “committed to freedom of religion and worship for all religions, as well to ensuring the freedom of access to holy sites”.

“The statement by Church leaders in Jerusalem is particularly infuriating given their silence on the plight of many Christian communities in the Middle East suffering from discrimination and persecution,” it added.