Israel will prosecute those who attack the country’s Christian minority, President Shimon Peres vowed Monday while feting the heads of the various Christian denominations at a New Year’s reception. He also promised to guarantee continued full access to all holy sites.
“Wherever intolerance appears we will continue to take firm action against it. There’s no place for violence in our society, and even more so when it targets people or places of faith,” Peres said at the event, which was attended by more than a dozen leaders of Christian faith groups in Israel. “The State of Israel will tolerate no aggressions against members of the clergy or religious crimes of any kind. Those who carry out these unacceptable acts will be brought to justice and spared no reprimand.”
Deviating from his written remark, the president then said he was angry about the insults that some Christian clergymen had to endure in recent months. “We cannot stand it,” he said.
The last few years saw a spate of vandalism against Christian properties in and around Jerusalem, blamed on Jewish nationalists carrying out so-called “price tag” attacks. Clergymen have also reported being spit on by Jewish youth.
Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who also attended the event, condemned “the gangs responsible for price tag attacks.” Acts intended to hurt and offend Christian clergymen “do not represent the Jewish people and its values,” he said. “I hope that these criminals will be apprehended and brought to justice soon.”
His ministry, he said, attributes “great importance” to the relationship between the churches and all Israel’s government institutions.
Sa’ar mentioned a Channel 2 television report aired this weekend about attacks on Christian clergymen in Jerusalem. “We will respond strongly to these types of crime,” he said. “The Israeli government will not stand for any attacks on the holy sites and against the followers of any religion anywhere in this country.”
Greek Patriarch Theophilos III thanked the president for his “determined and strong voice” against price tag attacks. Striking a more critical note, he said that “there is more that can be done” to facilitate access to the holy places for pilgrims.
Price tag attacks are usually carried out against Christian and Arab targets, often in a professed retaliation against anti-settlement policies by the government. Jerusalem has long promised to tackle the phenomenon but critics say authorities have so far failed to curb the attacks.
Both Sa’ar and Peres said Israel is committed to guarantee that all worshippers will continue to enjoy free access to the country’s holy sites.
“Despite religious differences, Israel has always been and will always remain committed to freedom of worship, to the freedom of religion,” the president said. “We will continue to guarantee access to the holy sites for all. And I can guarantee that a holy site, whether it is a Christian church, a Muslim mosque or a Jewish synagogue, will be under proper control.”
“Our duty is to coexist, to let the Holy Spirit guard the holy sites,” he said.
During the reception at the President’s Residence, attended by Archbishop Elias Chacour, the Latin Patriarch Fouad Tawl, and other high-profile Christian dignitaries, Peres implored the religious leaders to play their part in current efforts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Speaking at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in an annual Midnight Mass last week, Twal peppered his homily with both optimism and criticism of Israeli policies against Palestinians, asking worshipers ”not to forget our own problems here: the prisoners and their families who hope for their release, the poor who have lost their land and their homes demolished, families waiting to be reunited, those out of work and all who suffer from the economic crisis.”
Peres said it was up to the religious leaders to ”build bridges of understanding and paths of peace.”
“It is in the hands of citizens everywhere to overcome lack of trust and skepticism. It is time for us and the Palestinians to move away from the language of enemies and opponents and embrace the dialogue of friendship and cooperation,” he said.
When Israeli and Palestinian leaders finally end the Middle East conflict, “there will be a new relationship between Islam and Judaism, between the Arab world and the Jewish state,” he said.
“There is more that unites than divides us,” Peres added, addressing the Christian clergymen. “This house is your house and its doors are always open before you.”