“The blood of the innocent cries out to heaven, we are told. Sometimes that cry does not have to travel far, as when slaughter is visited upon the very houses of worship where one goes to encounter God. The massacre of innocents is always an abominable crime. When done in the name of God it is compounded by the sin of blasphemy. When done in the house of God it constitutes a sacrilege. Blasphemous and sacrilegious murder is on the increase.”
I wrote those lines three years ago after a massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. I could have rewritten them last week after the massacre of black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. They were nearly applicable again last week as the Church of the Multiplication on the Sea of Galilee was set ablaze by arsonists. The police suspect Jewish extremists, as the church was defaced with Hebrew graffiti quoting from the Aleinu prayer said thrice daily by religious Jews.
In the latter case there were no deaths, only some minor injuries. Yet there is a disturbing pattern of vandalism – now escalating it seems – against houses of worship in the Holy Land.
“Since December 2009 about 43 churches and mosques were torched or desecrated, yet not a single person has been prosecuted by the authorities,” said a statement from the highest religious authorities in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. “The Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, representing the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the Heads of the Local Churches of the Holy Land and the Courts of Sharia Law in the Palestinian Authority, calls on the police forces and respective authorities to do their utmost to bring the perpetrators to justice, to prevent such attacks and restore safety and respect for Holy Sites of all religions,” it said.
Respect for holy places is diminishing. Earlier this year, a mosque not far from Bethlehem in the West Bank town of al-Jaba was set on fire, defaced with graffiti in Hebrew calling for the death of Muslims and Arabs. The fire was set by extremist Jewish settlers, according to reports from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The date – February 25 – was clearly chosen to mark the anniversary of the massacre in Hebron on that date in 1994. There, at the Cave of the Patriarchs, where both Jews and Muslims venerate the tombs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, an American-Israeli terrorist, Baruch Goldstein, opened fire on Muslims at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29 and wounding another 120.
Last November in Jerusalem, four ultra-Orthodox Jews were killed and seven injured at the Har Nof synagogue during their morning prayers by two Muslims who worked at a grocery store in the Jewish neighbourhood.
Catholics remember 2010, when on the vigil of All Saints’ Day, ISIS stormed the Syriac Catholic cathedral in Baghdad during a Sunday evening Mass, killing 58 people, including the priest offering the Holy Mass and the one hearing Confessions. That same year, and again in 2011, Coptic Christians in Egypt were killed upon leaving Mass during the Christmas season.
In May 2014, a Shia mosque in Baghdad was bombed, killing 17.
In July of the same year, in the city of Mosul, part of biblical Nineveh, ISIS blew up the shrine of Nabi Yunus (the prophet Jonah), an important Shia holy site. The shrine contained by tradition the tomb of Jonah, and was desecrated before it was destroyed.
In August 2014, Shia armed terrorists killed 73 people inside a Sunni mosque in Baquba, Iraq.
In January of this year, rioting Muslims burned more than 40 Catholic churches in Niamey, the capital of Niger, in an apparent protest at the Charlie Hebdo magazine. So extensive was the destruction that Sunday Mass had to be suspended in Niamey for lack of churches and in the face of danger.
In February, Taliban forces claimed responsibility for the massacre of 19 Shia Muslims at Friday prayers in a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan. In September 2013, the same jihadist group killed 78 people at the Anglican church of All Saints in the same city.
The massacre in Charleston, against Christians in the world’s dominant media market, complicated by America’s troubled history with race and gun violence, understandably has garnered worldwide attention. Yet the phenomenon of sacrilegious violence is global and growing.
It makes a mockery of the very word we use for our sacred spaces – sanctuary. And it gives rise in our hearts to fervent prayers that the God who cannot be mocked will attend to the mockers according to their deeds (Galatians 6:7). Jesus cleansed the temple of those who made it a marketplace. What of those who make it a slaughterhouse?
Fr Raymond de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine