Maintaining Peace

Police Inspector Johnny Kassabri Is Israeli Government’s Direct Link to Christians

JERUSALEM — When tensions arise between Catholics and Christians of other denominations, or between Catholics and the Israeli government, the Latin patriarch turns to Police Inspector Johnny Kassabri, the Israel Police’s liaison to Christian communities in Jerusalem.

A Catholic from the northern Israeli city of Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus, Lt. Kassabri, 40, worked his way up from being a traffic officer and serving as the head of the motorcade that accompanies VIPs to Jerusalem to serving in one of the most important jobs in an often-troubled city.

Based in the Old City of Jerusalem, which is home to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall and Al Aqsa Mosque, Kassabri’s position requires not only law-enforcement skills, but diplomacy. 

His job is “to maintain peace” between the different Christian denominations and between the denominations and the government, including the police, government offices and the Jerusalem municipality, Kassabri said from his office in the stone police station within the Old City’s ancient walls.

“If there is a dispute, I step in and, with the parties, work to find a solution.”

In Jerusalem, which is holy to all three monotheistic religions, incidents that would be considered minor elsewhere have the potential to evolve into full-scale conflicts, even among Christians.

The various denominations all have a claim to holy places like the Church of the Nativity in Nazareth, but coordinating who can use the churches when, who is responsible for maintaining them and who will pay for repairs, can and does lead to occasional conflicts.  

Kassabri recalled how, during a renovation of a monastery by the Greek Orthodox Church, a construction worker accidentally damaged the roof of an adjacent convent housing Ethiopian Orthodox nuns.

“They called me at 8pm, and I spoke with the nuns and calmed them down. The next day, I spoke with the Greeks, and we came up with a comprehensive plan to fix the roof. I gave them a deadline to finish the work.”

More often than not, however, church officials call Kassabri for advice, not police intervention.

“They ask what, from the perspective of the Israeli police, they need to do, whether it be about a parking ticket or how to renew their visas, since they are not Israeli citizens.”

Kassabri is one of the estimated 1,500 Arab Christians with Israeli citizenship serving in the Israeli police, and 100 more serve in the paramilitary Border Police. Another 300 or so Christians volunteer for service in the Israel Defense Forces, according to the Israel Police and Christian IDF Forum, a group created in 2012 to improve integration through military service.

“If we don’t integrate, we will remain marginalized,” said Shadi Haloul, spokesman for the Christian IDF Forum, who noted that a small but growing number of Israel’s 161,000 indigenous, mostly Arab, Christians believe service to the country is the best way to become fully accepted by the Jewish society — 80% of the population. 

Kassabri said he joined the police more than 17 years ago “because I’m Israeli. In the north of Israel, Arabs have Israeli citizenship; and, for me, serving the country is first and foremost about serving the community. I live in the state of Israel, and I need to abide by its laws. Living here has responsibilities but also benefits.” 

Kassabri acknowledges that most Christian Arabs in Israel — who, like all Arabs, are exempt from both mandatory military service and civilian national service — have no intention of serving their country in an official way.

“There are people who see the security service as a negative concept, something against the Palestinian people. But the way I see it, we are in a unique position to support our community and find solutions. I feel I’m bridging the gap.”

Superintendent Micky Rosenfeld, foreign press spokesman for the Israel Police, said Kassabri is an asset to the police.

“We have an officer who can speak to the people and maintain a dialogue, who speaks Arabic, Hebrew and English. When there is an argument, a protest, a demonstration, he can solve the problems on the ground in a way others cannot.”

Msgr. William Shomali, auxiliary bishop of Jerusalem, called Kassabri’s work “crucial” for the well-being and day-to-day running of the local Catholic community, especially in the Old City, where the observance of a religious holiday inevitably leads to major disruptions, including massive road closures.   

“On the one side, he informs us of the municipality and police decisions during Jewish feasts, especially the instructions concerning the closure of the Old City. In this way, we know ahead of time and take our precautions. When we complain about the excessive closures, Johnny tries to help in urgent cases.”

On the flip side, “Johnny brings to the police our requests on the occasion of Christian feasts. That’s when we need the police to protect the religious processions — such as the ones to the Holy Sepulcher or the Palm Sunday procession — from intruders. He coordinates these details.”

Kassabri’s phone “remains open 24 hours,” Msgr. Shomali said.  

One of Kassabri’s most important tasks is to maintain the “Status Quo” decree in the Holy Sepulcher Church that spells out how various denominations share the church.

He recalled an instance when the Coptic Church insisted on completing prayers at 8am, while the Greek Orthodox Church wanted the Copts to end at 7:30am.

When the parties refused to budge, Kassabri shortened the prayer time of each church by 15 minutes.

“We as police want the parties to solve their problems themselves, but when they can’t, we have no choice but to intervene,” he said.

Kassabri said he advises young Christian Arabs to serve their country “because we live in Israel, and this is a way to help our community. I don’t see the difference between Christians serving in Israel, in the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank or in Jordan. By helping others, we help ourselves.”

Michele Chabin

writes from Jerusalem.