JERUSALEM — The Jan. 3 indictment of three Jews for the February 2015 arson attack on the Dormition Abbey has not prevented additional attacks on the Christian holy site.
On the evening of Jan. 16, vandals spray-painted anti-Christian Hebrew graffiti on the walls of the Benedictine Monastery, located just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. It was the latest attack against the monastery and one of hundreds carried out against Christian- and Arab-owned property during the past several years.
Israeli officials believe most of these hate crimes have been carried out by Jewish extremists who want to drive out non-Jews from Israel and humiliate the Israeli government for not building more Jewish settlements.
In the Jan. 16 attack, vandals scrawled “Christians to Hell,” “Death to the Heathen Christians, the Enemies of Israel,” and “The revenge of the people of Israel is yet to come.” The last message was accompanied by an image of a bloody knife.
On Jan. 20, the Jerusalem Post reported that two teens, one 16 and the other 15 have been arrested in connection with the incident.
The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said it “very strongly condemns this aggression and reiterates that the unique remedy for such behavior is to control the kind of education given in the schools, where these young people are educated, and to follow up [with education for and outreach to] those who incite intolerance against Christians.”
The patriarchate called it “regrettable” that such episodes of hatred come 50 years after Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, “which initiated the interreligious dialogue of the Catholic Church with other religions and turned a new page between Catholic Church and Judaism.”
Wadie Abunassar, a consultant to the Catholic Church, told the Register that such attacks “have become a phenomenon not only in Jerusalem, but in many areas under Israeli rule. Almost every second week we’re witnessing similar acts; and in most cases the perpetrators are not found.”
Government Actions Requested
Abunassar called on the Israeli government to invest not only in better security, but also tolerance education.
“Israeli schools, especially religious schools, need to teach tolerance and having respect for the other, and we don’t see this happening,” he said. “We are also aware that some rabbinical authorities are not only not condemning such attacks, but also urging such behavior.”
When Jewish property is vandalized in Europe, Abunassar said, “the top leadership condemns these acts. The Christian world does not remain silent. We feel there’s inequality, and this inequality isn’t acceptable in a country that calls itself a democracy. “
Israel’s top officials have, in fact, condemned the hate crimes, which are presumably being carried by some of the hundreds of young men and teens known as “hilltop youths.” Most are high-school dropouts who scorn the authority of their communities and all but the most extreme rabbis.
In addition to acts of vandalism, Jewish extremists were convicted for the July 2014 murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teen, after Palestinians murdered three Jewish teens. Two extremists were indicted on Jan. 3 for the murders of three Palestinians — a husband, wife and their toddler — in a July 2015 arson attack.
Other extremists were also charged at the same time with setting the February 2015 fire at Dormition Abbey.
According to the Ministry of Justice indictment, extremists carried out the Dormition Abbey arson “partly due to a rumor that the Church intends to take possession of the Cenacle,” which Jews call King David’s tomb, located next to the abbey. The abbey’s foundations date to the fifth century. The abbey was built on the spot where, according to Church Tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary fell asleep prior to her assumption.
The arsonists scrawled, “Mary is a whore” and “Jesus is a whore.” The fire they set caused extensive damage to the church.
The Abbey’s Perspective
In an interview with the Register just prior to the latest act of vandalism, Benedictine Father Nikodemus Schnabel, spokesman for Dormition Abbey, said the church has received its information about the indictment from the media, not the Israeli government.
“We have no knowledge of what’s going on. The police have not been informing us. I think there are a lot of people of goodwill, especially in the police, but it has been difficult” to receive information.
Father Schnabel emphasized that Church officials “don’t have any feelings for revenge” and noted that “there are radicals and extremists in all religions and societies. That isn’t the issue for us. The issue is that we have 1.6 million euros in damages, and two people, a monk and a volunteer, suffered smoke inhalation.”
Initially, Father Schnabel said, the Israeli government promised to compensate the church with funds allocated for terror-attack victims, and, therefore, the church’s insurance company refused to pay for any repairs. “But weeks later, the government informed the church it wouldn’t pay because, according to them it was a hate crime, not a terror attack.”
Local Church officials had all but given up hope of being able to repair the heavily damaged building until Israeli President Reuven Rivlin paid a visit just prior to his visit with Pope Francis in Rome.
After seeing the damage firsthand and getting an earful about the arson from the Vatican, Rivlin instructed the government “to rethink” the hate-crime designation.
“We are waiting and don’t know what will happen now,” Father Schnabel said. “You can still smell the smoke. Whether there was an indictment or not, we sometimes feel a little bit helpless.”
Father Schnabel said that in the past two years, there was an attack “on the monastery cemetery and the vandalization of our property on the seashore [in the Galilee], where we celebrate the Eucharist. In June 2013, two of our cars were destroyed, and we have graffiti quite often. We really are the hot spot of Jerusalem,” he said.
Father Schnabel said the Israel Police have established a station on Mount Zion, where Dormition Abbey and David’s Tomb are located, but the police often release the extremists they catch within a couple of hours.
Expressions of Goodness
Despite the many challenges of being a Christian in the Holy Land, Father Schnabel said the attacks have brought out the goodness in many people, including many Jews and Muslims.
“I’m happy with the many rabbis who came to us and said, ‘We are with you,’ and I’m happy with [Israeli] civil society” as a whole. “We received a great deal of support after the attack on Tabgha,” he said, referring to the 2015 arson attack on the Church of the Multiplication in Galilee.
Father Schnabel said, “The radicals want to bring destruction, but we’ve seen a lot of solidarity and love.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.