For the past 10 years, there has been a notable increase in the number of anti-Christian attacks and incidents in the Holy Land. Perpetrated by Jewish hardliners, they have been regularly denounced by the Christian Churches of the Holy Land, who have appealed about them to the civil authorities. The pontifical foundation ACN International, summaries this last decade after speaking to Auxiliary Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the patriarchal vicar for Jerusalem and Palestine.
On 11th February this year a hundred or so car tires were slashed in the Arab town of Jish in northern Israel. At the same time racist graffiti, scrawled in Hebrew, were found on the walls of the town. Jish is a town of around 3000 souls, over 50% of whom are Maronite Christians, while 10% are Melkites and 35% Muslims. The graffiti overtly criticized interfaith coexistence in Israel, with such messages as “Wake up, you Jews… Stop assimilating!”
In an immediate response, the Assembly of the Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land (Assemblée des Ordinaires catholiques de Terre Sainte, AOCTS), which represents the Catholic bishops and episcopal vicars of the Latin and Eastern rites in the Holy Land, called on “the civil and security authorities of the State” to “assume their responsibilities in regard both to education and security in order to not permit such crimes to be repeated in the future”. It was their umpteenth appeal of the kind. For in fact, as Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, the patriarchal Latin vicar for Jerusalem and Palestine acknowledged sadly, “For over 10 years the AOCTS has been asking for a meeting with the relevant ministers or even the Prime Minister himself… But so far, nothing!”
There have been instances of spitting, insults, offensive graffiti, acts of vandalism against Christian places of worship. Dozens of such attacks of all types have been counted over the past decade, with more than five recorded over the course of the past two years alone. On the positive side, they are routinely condemned by the Israeli government, the media and Israeli public opinion, Bishop Marcuzzo acknowledges. But action frequently fails to materialize. With the exception of the case of the arson attack on part of the shrine of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha in northern Israel 2015, for which the perpetrators were arrested and condemned, as Bishop Marcuzzo himself points out.
The root of the evil is to be found in education
The Churches of the Holy land put the blame particularly on the kind of education given to young people in some of the Israeli schools. “It is undoubtedly a question of education, and one that is caused by a more general problem of a certain cultural outlook, namely the refusal to accept the diversity of the other”, Bishop Marcuzzo observes.
“We are extremely concerned”, he adds, “because the mutual acceptance of others in society is the only sound basis of every society, above all amid the very great ethnic, cultural, religious and political diversity of Israel and the Middle East. Such an attitude undermines the very basis of social cohesion and solidarity which are the foundation of every country. We are also concerned because this culture does not tend toward reconciliation and peace, which should be the primary goal of every country in the region.”
The AOCTS had already made known its dismay in October 2012. “What is happening today in Israeli society, that the Christians should become the scapegoats and be targeted by these acts of violence? What kind of teaching of contempt towards Christians is being taught in the schools? And why are those responsible never arrested or brought to trial?”, Such was the question asked by the Catholic Churches of the Holy Land at the time. And the AOCTS had also expressly called for “the educational system to be radically changed, for otherwise the same causes will [lead to] the same effects”. Eight years later, they are acknowledging the bitter truth. “The Churches are raising these problems at every level and on numerous occasions, but since their voice is not backed by political and financial weight (we are only 2% of the population), it is still not being heard. “Which moreover raises the problem of legal protection and minority rights”, Bishop Marcuzzo points out.
Settlers and radical religious Jews
The incident in Jish forms part of the policy of the “price to be paid” (Tag Mehir in Hebrew), which has been demanded ever since 2008 by the fundamentalist settlers and other activists of the extreme right. They claim that this is payback for the limits imposed by the government and the army on their extreme hardline project of colonization. And in pursuit of this, they are willing to attack the properties of the Palestinian people of trans-Jordania and the Israeli Arabs (both Christians and Muslims) or else their places of worship.
But at the same time the attacks can originate – as the Armenian patriarchate of Jerusalem lamented less than a year ago – from “Jewish religious extremists”. Although a minority in Israel, they can exert some influence within the Jewish religious world in the country.
In a rare communiqué, dated 20 June 2019, the Armenian patriarchate also emerged from its silence, following an altercation between its seminarians, who were walking from the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City to their weekly procession at the Holy Sepulchre and three young Jews who had spat on them, shouting “Death to the Christians!” and “We will wipe you out of this country”. The Armenian patriarchate of Jerusalem expressed its extreme indignation: “We thought that Israel was a democratic country”; “Who would dare to spit on Jews in Europe or the United States?”. “Is it permissible in Israel to spit upon Christians?”
At the same time the patriarchate had appealed to the Israeli government, to Jewish religious leaders, the Israeli police and all the other authorities involved “to punish those responsible and emphatically condemn this behaviour towards Christians and in particular towards the Armenian community.”
A phenomenon that affects not only Jerusalem
In Jerusalem, close to the Armenian Quarter, the Christian communities (Greek Orthodox, Franciscans, Benedictines and Armenians) established on Mount Sion have likewise experienced anti-Christian attacks in the last few years. In this area, some radical Jews are in fact attempting to suppress all Christian presence in the area surrounding what they venerate as the tomb of King David. Thus, for example, the Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition, in particular, was attacked in May 2014 and February 2015 by arson attempts. In 2012 and 2013 blatantly anti-Christian graffiti was scrawled on the building. And again in January 2016 when the walls of the monastery were covered with hate-filled slogans in Hebrew such as “Death to the Christian pagans, the enemies of Israel”, “May his name (i.e. Jesus) and his memory be extinguished”, or again “To hell with the Christians”.
Nor does this phenomenon affect Jerusalem alone. In October 2018 (following an earlier act of desecration in December 2015), headstones were overturned and crosses smashed in the cemetery of the Salesian monastery of Beit Gemal, close to Beit Shemesh, a town with a high proportion of ultra-orthodox Jews around 30 km west of Jerusalem. In 2013 Molotov cocktails were thrown against the monastery itself and slogans like “death to non-Jews” were daubed on the walls of the monastery. In September 2017 the monastery church of Saint Stephen was also vandalized.
Two years ago, again at Beit Gemal, the walls of the convent of the sisters of the Monastic Family of Bethlehem were smeared with blasphemous graffiti in Hebrew. And in March 2014, on the very outskirts of Beit Shemesh, another act of vandalism targeted the monastery of Deir Rafat, which is also known as the Shrine of Our Lady Queen of Palestine and of the Holy Land. Finally, among the most egregious attacks was the arson attack in Tabgha 2015, mentioned above.