For several weeks, members of the small Christian community in Jerusalem’s Old City say they have felt under pressure from what they say is growing harassment and intimidation from violent Jewish ultranationalists.
Earlier this month, a man later identified by church authorities as a Jewish radical was wrestled to the ground and detained after he allegedly vandalised a statue of Jesus in the Church of the Flagellation. The church stands at the place where Christ is held to have taken the cross after being condemned to death by crucifixion.
“This is the church commemorating the suffering of Jesus, and exactly here, doing that is something very bad, very bad,” said Father Eugenio Alliata, responsible for the archeological collections at Terra Sancta Museum.
That incident followed a series of others, including one in which graffiti reading “Death to Armenians” and “Death to Christians” were scrawled in Hebrew on the walls of the Armenian Convent of Saint James, early in January.
“In the past two months, I would say, since the beginning of the new government, attacks like this are becoming very, very usual,” said Miran Krikorian, a restaurant owner in the Old City. “And the problem is that we are feeling that there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Israeli police say they have stepped up patrols around Christian sites in Jerusalem as churches report abuse by Jews following the swearing-in of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government.
As well as the statue defacement, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the office of the Latin rite Roman Catholic Archbishop of Jerusalem, said there had been at least four other reported incidents of vandalism or violent harassment.
In one, a group of religious Jews had thrown chairs and tables around an area near the headquarters of the Custody of the Holy Land, creating a “battleground” in the Christian quarter. In another, a Christian cemetery in Jerusalem was vandalised, it said.
No comment was available from a spokesman for Itamar Ben-Gvir, the ultranationalist Jewish settler in charge of police in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s six-week-old coalition – though both men have pledged to safeguard all citizens.
“When there is no strict reaction from the government, it is not only encouraging these people to behave in the same way, but it also gives us the feeling that the government wants to behave to the Christian minorities in this way,” said Father Aghan Gogchian, chancellor of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
The cramped warren of alleyways that makes up the Old City surrounds some of the holiest sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and the local communities have long developed ways of living together.
Police said an American suspect had been sent for psychiatric evaluation ahead of his likely deportation over the vandalism of the statue.
Queried by Reuters, police did not directly address the allegations that anti-Christian incidents were on the rise. But they said arrests had been carried out, and some indictments filed, in all of the cases cited.
“A variety of police patrols” were taking part in “stepped-up operations around the Old City, houses of worship and sacred sites with a view to preserving security, public order and freedom of religion for all,” the police statement said.
Editing by James Mackenzie and Hugh Lawson