JERUSALEM — Ahead of the Pope’s historic trip, Catholic leaders in the Holy Land demanded the Israeli government do more to ensure that Pope Francis’ May 24-26 pilgrimage to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian-ruled West Bank would not be marred by actions carried out by Jewish extremists.
The demand for tighter security around Christian holy sites followed an escalation of months of vandalism against Christian churches and mosques and Arab-owned property in Israel. Non-Orthodox synagogues and Israeli military bases have also been targeted.
In early May, graffiti stating, "Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel" was spray-painted in Hebrew on a column of the Office of the Assembly of Bishops at the Notre Dame Center, which is owned by the Vatican.
Pope Francis was expected to stay at the center, where he was scheduled to hold a meeting with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During the visit, he was to also meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The same week in early May, graffiti declaring, "King David is for the Jews; Jesus is garbage" was discovered scrawled on a wall opposite a Jerusalem church. The words were topped by a Star of David.
"The fanaticism and intimidation against Christians continues," an article on the website of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said in response to the vandalism. Was the timing, just prior to the Pope’s visit, "mere coincidence?" the article asked rhetorically.
The Custody of the Holy Land, the authority that oversees all Catholic property and institutions, also urged Israeli officials to "work urgently against extremist elements" to ensure peace and safeguard Christian holy places.
Israeli authorities say most, if not all, of the attacks were being carried out by a small group of young ultra-nationalist Jews angry at the government for demolishing a handful of Jewish settlements, most recently in mid-May. Many of these attacks — ranging from graffiti to the burning of prayer books and tire slashings — have been accompanied by the word "Price Tag" scrawled on a wall.
‘Price Tag’ Attacks
The extremists want the Israeli government to "pay" for the times it has destroyed Jewish settlements or frozen the construction of new settlements.
For years, such "Price Tag" attacks were carried out in the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War. At least 400,000 Jewish settlers and 2.7 million Palestinians live in the territory, whose final status remains in limbo due to the lack of progress between Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators.
"We do not doubt the willingness of the state of Israel to [stop] these acts, which don’t serve the image of Israel," Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem told Religion News Service. "But efforts failed, and acts of vandalism continue increasing."
The bishop said a "new strategy is needed. Let us not forget that the kind of education received by these people prepares them to do similar acts. We have to improve the educational side if we want to avoid the repetition of such acts on the long-term period."
Many Holy Land Christians view Israel as the safest place for Christians to live in the Middle East, given the rapid rise of Islamic fundamentalism. At the same time, they feel increasingly threatened by ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox Jewish extremists, who believe that Christians have no right to live in Israel because of their persecution of the Jews over the centuries.
Israeli Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said these attacks constitute "hate crimes," and he said that the police were to arrest many more suspects, some of them under age 18, in the days leading up to the Pope’s visit.
On May 11, hundreds of people, most of them Jewish, held a rally in front of the prime minister’s office to demand the arrest of the ultra-nationalists carrying out the attacks.
Holy Land Christians, who comprise less than 2% of the population in both Israel and the West Bank, say the attacks, though deeply disturbing, had not lessened their joy over Pope Francis’ pilgrimage, and especially the Mass he was to hold in Bethlehem on May 25.
In Beit Jala, which is adjacent to Bethlehem, Nicholas Andonia, who is Greek Orthodox, said the visit, which was to be joined by thousands of Christian pilgrims from abroad, "will show the world that it’s safe to be here, unlike what is often portrayed by the news media. Having him here will strengthen us."
Andonia said he is pleased the Pope made room in his very tight schedule for a high-profile meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians. It is one of many efforts by the Vatican to promote greater understanding between the Churches.
At her grocery store, Hanan Simon, a Catholic married to a Greek Orthodox Christian man, said she wanted the Pope to see "the situation on the ground."
She noted that the Bethlehem area is divided from Israel by the high separation wall Israel built several years ago to prevent Palestinian terrorists from setting off bombs in Jerusalem and elsewhere.
While the wall vastly reduced the number of terror attacks, it has also made it nearly impossible for all but a small number of Palestinians to enter Jerusalem to work, attend school or seek medical attention.
Pope Francis was to see the wall up close as he traveled between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
"Life is very hard," Simon said. "We have permits to enter Jerusalem only at Christmas and Easter time. Otherwise, we can’t go."
Nader, a Greek Orthodox Christian who declined to give his last name, said the pilgrimage "will show the world that there are still Christians living in the Holy Land. We’re still here, keeping watch over the holy churches and institutions for the sake of Christians worldwide."
writes from Jerusalem.