In Holy Land, Churches denounce persistent anti-Christian attacks

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. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) spoke about the situation with Auxiliary Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He is the patriarchal vicar for Jerusalem and Palestine.

On Feb. 11, 2020, about a hundred car tires were slashed in the Arab town of Jish in northern Israel. At the same time racist graffiti, scrawled in Hebrew, was found on the walls of the town. Jish is a town of around 3000 souls, more than 50 percent of whom are Maronite Christians, while 10 percent are Melkites and 35 percent are Muslims. The graffiti read: “Wake up, you Jews… Stop assimilating!”

Arson damaged Church of Loaves and Fishes, in Galilee in 2015 (Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)

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 the last of many such appeals. Bishop Marcuzzo said: “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, and acts of vandalism targeting Christian places of worship. Dozens of such attacks of all types have been counted over the past decade, with more than five recorded cases over the course of the past two years. On the positive side, the bishop acknowledged that these incidents are routinely condemned by the Israeli government, the media and Israeli public opinion. But action frequently fails to materialize. An exception was the June 2015 arson attack on the shrine of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in northern Israel, for which the perpetrators were arrested and convicted.

“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 said, adding:

“We are extremely concerned, 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 the social cohesion and solidarity which are the foundation of every country.”

The AOCTS had already raised the alarm in October 2012, when it publicly asked the following questions: “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?” The AOCTS has also expressly called for “the educational system to be radically changed, for otherwise the same causes will [lead to] the same effects.”

View of Jerusalem

‘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 percent of the population), it is still not being heard, which moreover raises the problem of legal protection and minority rights,” Bishop Marcuzzo said.

The incident in Jish reflects the policy of the “price to be paid” (tag mehir in Hebrew), which motivates fundamentalist settlers and other activists of the extreme right. They claim that the vandalism is payback for the limits imposed by the government and the army on  their efforts to take over Palestinian territory.

In a rare communiqué, dated June 20th, 2019, the Armenian patriarchate of Jerusalem broke its silence. It was issued following an altercation between some of its seminarians and three young Jews in Jerusalem’s Old City. The youth spat on the seminarians and shouted: “death to the Christians!” and “we will wipe you out from this country.” The statement asked: “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?” The statement also called on Israeli authorities “to punish those responsible and emphatically condemn this behavior towards Christians, and in particular towards the Armenian community.”

Some of the attacks have focused in a part of Jerusalem where Jews venerate the tomb of King David. For example, two arson attempts—in May 2014 and February 2015—targeted the Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition. In 2012 and 2013 blatantly anti-Christian graffiti were scrawled on the building. And again in January 2016, 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,” and “to hell with the Christians.”

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 20 miles west of Jerusalem. In 2013, Molotov cocktails were hurled at the monastery and slogans like “death to non-Jews” were daubed on its walls.

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 violence was the arson attack on the Church of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha in 2015.

—Christoph Lafontaine