Jerusalem’s top Catholic asks Israel to crack down on holy site vandalism ahead of pope’s visit


McClatchy Foreign Staff

Two weeks before a planned visit to the West Bank and Israel by Pope Francis, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land urged the Israeli government on Sunday to halt a wave of anti-Arab vandalism that has targeted mosques and churches across the country.

Several places of prayer have been defaced with derogatory slogans in recent weeks, and police suspect some of the perpetrators may be extremist Jewish settlers from the West Bank.

“At this point the unrestrained acts of vandalism poison the atmosphere of coexistence…especially in these two weeks prior to the visit of Pope Francis,” Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, told a news conference before a religious procession in the northern Israeli city of Haifa.

Twal said Israeli authorities were not doing enough to bring the vandals to justice. “The actions are only drawing condemnation by Israeli leaders but few arrests,” Twal said, adding that the attacks are “a blight on the democracy that Israel ascribes to itself.”

Israeli law enforcement officials have pledged to crack down on the perpetrators and several suspects have been arrested for recent acts of vandalism, but so far none have been charged.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that there had been at least 20 cases of hate crimes in Israel in the last two months, ranging from slashing tires of cars belonging to Israeli Arabs to defacing of mosques and churches.

He said nine suspects had been arrested, including a couple from the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, a hotbed of militant settlers suspected of involvement in violent attacks on Palestinians and their property.

Jewish militants in the West Bank were infuriated last month when the Israeli army occupied a religious seminary at Yitzhar after settlers there destroyed a military position in response to the army’s demolition of illegal structures at the settlement.

The spate of vandalism attacks _ dubbed “price tag” by Jewish militants to denote retaliation for action by the authorities against wildcat settlement building _ have moved from the West Bank to Israel proper, targeting Israeli Arabs and Muslim and Christian holy sites.

In the latest attack, vandals on Thursday defaced a Romanian Orthodox church in a religious Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. Hebrew graffiti sprayed on a wall said: “Price Tag. King David is for the Jews. Jesus is garbage.”

Last week, “Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel” was scrawled in Hebrew on an outer column of the Office of the Assembly of Bishops at the Vatican’s Notre Dame Center in East Jerusalem.

In the Israeli Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, vandals last month spray-painted “Arabs Out” and set fire to the door of a mosque in an attempt to burn the building. A mosque in the Israeli Arab town of Fureidis was later defaced with the words “Close mosques, not yeshivas,” a reference to the seminary shut down by the army in Yitzhar.

The famed Israeli author Amos Oz lashed out at the vandals at an event marking his 75th birthday on Friday, calling them “Hebrew neo-Nazi groups” that he said were backed by “nationalist, even racist, legislators” and rabbis who provided them with a “pseudo-religious” justification for their acts.

“There is nothing the neo-Nazis do in Europe that these groups don’t do here,” Oz said, according to an account in the liberal newspaper Haaretz. “It’s about time we looked into the eyes of this monster.”

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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