By Adrian Blomfield
The Israeli government’s failure to respond adequately to Jewish extremists’ attacks against churches and monasteries is fostering a climate of intolerance toward Christianity in the country, a senior Vatican official in Jerusalem has warned.
Police inaction and an educational culture that encourages Jewish children to treat Christians with “contempt” has made life increasingly “intolerable” for many, said Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Custodian of the Holy Land.
The Rev. Pizzaballa’s intervention, unusually outspoken for a senior Catholic churchman, came after pro-settler extremists attacked a Trappist monastery in the town of Latroun.
The door of the monastery was set fire to and its walls were covered with graffiti that denounced Jesus Christ as a “monkey.”
The incident is the latest in a series of acts of arson and vandalism this year targeting places of worship, including Jerusalem’s 11th-century Monastery of the Cross, built on the site where the tree used to make Christ’s cross is believed to have been planted.
Slogans reading “Death to Christians” and other offensive graffiti were daubed on its walls.
Rev. Pizzaballa, the head of the Franciscan Order in the Holy Land, and fellow senior clergymen of other denominations have protested the failure of the police to identify the culprits behind any of the incidents.
But the most important issue they say Israel has failed to address is the practice of some ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools that teach children it is a doctrinal obligation to abuse anyone in Holy Orders they encounter in public.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, including children as young as 8, spit at members of the clergy on a daily basis, Rev. Pizzaballa said.
Such a culture of intolerance has resulted in a “scapegoating” of Christians, leading to them becoming the convenient target of extremists fighting political battles that have nothing to do with the community.
“Sadly, what happened in Latroun is only another in a long series of attacks against Christians and their places of worship,” Christian leaders, including Rev. Pizzaballa, said in a statement this week.
“Those who sprayed their hateful slogans expressed their anger at the dismantlement of the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But why do they vent this anger against Christians and Christian places of worship?
What kind of ‘teaching of contempt’ for Christians is being communicated in their schools and in their homes? The time has come for the authorities to act to put an end to this senseless violence and to ensure a ‘teaching of respect’ in schools for all those who call this land home.”
After years of silence by the church, Rev. Pizzaballa, who is charged by the Vatican with responsibility for all Christian sites in the Holy Land, has taken the lead in demanding protection for the faith. Earlier this year he wrote to Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, urging him to take action.
Although the Israeli government has strongly condemned attacks on Christians, Rev. Pizzaballa criticized the authorities for not taking the plight of the community seriously enough.
In an unusually outspoken interview with Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, he denounced the failure of the political system to address blatantly anti-Christian acts, particularly those carried out by prominent radical politicians.
Earlier this year, Michael Ben Ari, an Israeli legislator, publicly ripped up a copy of the New Testament in the country’s parliament, the Knesset, and threw it into a garbage bin after denouncing it as an “abhorrent” book.
A second legislator called for Bibles to be burnt.
Although Ben Ari was criticized by the Knesset’s speaker, he faced no official sanction despite protests from the church.
“Such a serious thing occurs and no one does anything,” Rev. Pizzaballa said. “In practice, it negates our existence here.”