Israel’s top police officer on Sunday vowed that Jewish extremists would not be allowed to spoil the upcoming visit of Pope Francis by vandalizing Christian holy places.
“You cannot exaggerate the importance of this visit on both a national and an international level,” Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino told reporters in Jerusalem.
The two-day papal visit to Israel, which begins on May 25, was being treated by police with the same level of importance as that of US President Barack Obama, with an extra 8,000 officers to be deployed throughout Jerusalem, he said.
Despite heightened tensions and security preparations, Pope Francis has turned down an offer to ride in an armored covered vehicle during his trip, instead opting for an open-top car.
“I’m afraid of you? I need an armored car because I’m afraid of you? The pope is not afraid of anyone,” the Vatican envoy to Israel Giuseppe Lazzarotto told Army Radio Sunday. He said the pope was coming to spread a message of peace and understanding.
According to the Army Radio report, the pope’s decision to ride in a less secure vehicle will mean authorities will be forced to close more roads and take more precautions, which could serve to paralyze areas around the capital during his visit.
Danino pledged that Jewish extremists responsible for a wave of racist anti-Arab attacks, which have also targeted Christian and Muslim holy sites, would not be allowed to spoil the visit.
“All sorts of extreme elements… are trying to create pressure and the impression of pressure. We are rejecting this pressure and we won’t let them succeed,” he said.
“We will do everything to ensure they won’t harm Christian holy places… and to ensure the trip goes successfully.”
Earlier this month, Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, head of the Roman Catholic church in the Holy Land, warned that hate crimes targeting Muslims and Christians was poisoning the atmosphere ahead of the pope’s visit, with church officials “very concerned” about the lack of security.
Israel has been struggling to contain a spiraling number of so-called “price tag” hate crimes by Jewish extremists against Palestinian and Arab property, which has included an increasing number of vandalism attacks on mosques and churches.
Although police have made scores of arrests, there have been no successful prosecutions, and the government has come under mounting pressure to authorize the Shin Bet internal security agency to intervene.