Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem gestures during a procession in Haifa, Israel, May 11. Patriarch Twal said a spate of attacks he described as acts of terror against the church were poisoning the atmosphere ahead of this month's visit by Pope Fran cis, and urged Israel to arrest more perpetrators. CNS photo/Ammar Awad, Reuters

Patriarch wants Israelis to crack down on vandalism at religious sites

By  Judith Sudilovsky, Catholic News Service
  • May 12, 2014

JERUSALEM - The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem called a continuing wave of vandalism against Christian, Muslim and Druze properties a "blight on Israeli democracy" and urged authorities to step up prosecution against the perpetrators.

Patriarch Fouad Twal said during a May 11 news conference in the northern city of Haifa that the attacks, which involve scrawling and spray painting racist and anti-Christian and anti-Muslim messages on buildings and holy sites, was particularly troublesome in light of Pope Francis' planned visit to the Holy Land May 24-26.

The comments came after anti-Christian graffiti was found scrawled on a column outside of the Office of the Assembly of Bishops at the Notre Dame Centre in East Jerusalem, where Pope Francis is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later this month.

"This wave of extremist actions of terror, are surely a grave concern to all reasonable persons. The government of Israel must be concerned, because it is very bad for the State of Israel's image abroad," he said in a prepared statement.

On May 7, after the graffiti was discovered, Twal released a statement expressing concern and fear of escalating violence. He also criticized the lack of political response by the Israeli government.

The Ha'aretz Israeli newspaper reported that district police commanders have been directed to create security plans to protect the Christian population and holy sites. Police have said security measures will be tight during the Pope's visit.

In Haifa, the patriarch chastised the Israeli government for failing to arrest any of the perpetrators in more than two and a half years of increasing attacks by a group calling itself "Price Tag." The group has been characterized by authorities as hardline Israeli settles opposed to peace talks with Palestinians and any infringements on Jewish settlements and outposts in the West Bank.

The first attack on a mosque in the West Bank took place in 2009. The attacks have now crossed over the Green Line into Israel itself where there have been reports of graffiti in both Christian and Muslim villages, on Catholic monasteries and most recently at the Notre Dame Centre and a Romanian Orthodox church in the old city.

Activists opposed to the attacks said they have recorded more than 100 incidents against non-Jewish property and individuals.

"The actions are only drawing condemnation by Israeli leaders but few arrests," Twal said. "'All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,' to use an often quoted line."

He said the "unrestrained" acts of vandalism poison the atmosphere of "co-existence and collaboration" particularly in the weeks prior to the Pope's visit.

At the same time, he said, he was "encouraged" that Israeli's Justice Minister Tzipi Livni had convened an emergency meeting to combat the vandalism and that security forces had described the attacks as terrorism.

The interfaith Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land also condemned the vandalism.

At the same time, another group seems to be using the Pope's visit as an opportunity to fan the flames over a long-running dispute between Israel and the Vatican over the ownership of the Cenacle on Mount Zion, traditionally considered the site of the Last Supper. The group has put up posters in Jerusalem and created a Facebook page which lashes out against any agreement governing the property.

Pope Francis will celebrate Mass with the bishops of the Holy Land at the cenacle. St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI also prayed at the cenacle.

The room is located on the second floor of a building that also houses a site considered holy by Jews and Muslims as the tomb of King David. The property once belonged to the Franciscans before it was taken over by Muslims who turned it into a mosque for King David, whom they consider a prophet.

Several hundred people joined a joint Jewish-Christian-Muslim-organized demonstration against the vandalism May 11 in front of the prime minister's house in Jerusalem. It was organized by the Interreligious Co-ordinating Council in Israel and Illuminating Tag, a group of Israelis organized to counter the vandals.

"Violence and racism has no place in our religion," said Tammy Gottlieb, among the organizers of the demonstration. "It is important to show a tolerant face to our neighbours."

"It is impossible to ask why this is happening at this particular point in time so close to the visit of the Pope when he is coming to ask for peace and justice," said Franciscan Sister Lucia Corradin, who had travelled from Bethlehem to join the demonstration. "When there is violence it affects every person. (Pope Francis) is not only coming for Christians. He is coming for everybody. The average person wants to live together and they believe it is possible because we are all human."

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