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Patriarch calls for Israeli authorities to crack down on vandalism at religious sites

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem gestures during a procession in Haifa, Israel (CNS)

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 news conference in the northern city of Haifa on Sunday that the attacks, which involve scrawling and spray painting racist, 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 on May 24-26.

The comments came after anti-Christian graffiti was found on a column outside of the Office of the Assembly of Bishops at the Notre Dame Center 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, Patriarch Twal released a statement expressing concern and fear of escalating violence. He also criticised 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 characterised 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,” Patriarch Twal said. ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,’ to use and 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 Israel’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 stoke up 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 sets out opposition to 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 there.

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-organised demonstration against the vandalism on Sunday in front of the prime minister’s house in Jerusalem. It was organised by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel and Illuminating Tag, a group of Israelis organised to counter the vandals.

“Violence and racism has no place in our religion,” said Tammy Gottlieb, one of the organisers of the demonstration. “It is important to show a tolerant face to our neighbors.”

“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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