Church sources accuse Israeli police of downplaying acts of violence towards them, and attribute Jews’ vandalism to a growing national legitimization of discrimination
Vandalism and assaults targeting Christians and Christian institutions in Jerusalem have risen sharply since the beginning of the year, something leaders of churches in the city link to the tone of the new government.
Church sources say the police do not treat the situation seriously enough and refuse to identify the growing list of violent incidents as a trend. According to the sources, only a small percentage of incidents are reported to the police, and the extent of the phenomenon is unknown. A document of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Center, which coordinates among the city’s various Christian denominations, quotes an Armenian priest as saying that he has been spat on more than 90 times in the year to date. Most of the reported incidents took place in the Old City of Jerusalem.
On January 2, two Israeli Jewish teenagers desecrated more than 30 graves at a Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion, breaking crosses and smashing headstones. They were later arrested and charged. Just 10 days later, anti-Armenian and anti-Christian slogans were scrawled on the walls of the Armenian monastery in the Old City, and a Maronite Christian community center in the Western Galilee community of Ma’alot-Tarshiha was vandalized. In two separate incidents in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem in late January, Christian teenagers were assaulted and young Jewish men threw chairs at customers of an Armenian restaurant.
On February 2, a statue of Jesus in the Church of the Flagellation, on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City, was knocked down and defaced. An American Jewish tourist was arrested in the incident. At the end of the month, Armenian priests carrying a cross were attacked in the Armenian Quarter. Last week, a young Israeli man went on a rampage in the church on the Mount of Olives and threatened people with an iron rod. The suspect was arrested and ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation.
Father Francesco Patton, the custodian of the Franciscan order in the Holy Land, said in a statement: ‘It is no coincidence that the legitimization of discrimination and violence in public opinion and in the current Israeli political environment also translates into acts of hatred and violence against the Christian community. We expect and demand that the Israeli government and law enforcement agencies act decisively to guarantee security for all communities, to guarantee the protection of religious minorities and to eradicate religious fanaticism. We specifically refer to these serious incidents of intolerance, crimes of hatred, and vandalism directed against Christians in Israel.’
John Munayer, director of international engagement at Jerusalem’s Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue, says the Armenian community is the focus of the attacks due to its location near the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and the distinctive clothing of its clerics. ‘The believers suffer spitting, pushing, blows on the head and curses, occasionally graffiti is sprayed and there are more serious attacks inside the churches. People think twice whether to walk through this alley or the other,’ he said. Munayer says the police minimize the attacks as being carried out by teenagers or by people with mental illness.
‘There is an increase not only in numbers, but also in the daring narure of the attacks,’ says Yisca Harani, a scholar of Christianity who keeps in touch with Jerusalem’s Christian communities. ‘If in the past people would spit without being seen, now they spit openly. It is no longer something that is done in secret,’ she says.
In a statement, the police said that all of the above incidents were dealt with quickly and decisively and that suspects had been arrested in most of them and charged in some of them. ‘Alongside increased activity in the area of the Old City, houses of worship and religious sites through a variety of police forces to maintain security, order and freedom of worship for members of all religions and denominations, we will continue to act against criminals until they are brought to justice.’