2 Jewish Israelis detained for allegedly spitting at Christian cleric in Jerusalem

Two youths insulted and spat at Christian priest in Old City in first reported incident since war started in October, though before that there had been a marked rise

Two youths (R) insult and spit at Abbot Nikodemus Schnabel in Jerusalem's Old City, February 3, 2024. (Screenshot/X; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Two youths (R) insult and spit at Abbot Nikodemus Schnabel in Jerusalem's Old City, February 3, 2024. (Screenshot/X; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Two Jewish Israelis were detained on Saturday on suspicion that they spat at and insulted a Christian clergyman in the Old City of Jerusalem, police said.

Officers said in a statement that the incident had occurred earlier in the day and the two suspects were tracked down a few hours later.

One of the suspects was 17 years old. No details were released about the second.

Both suspects were placed under house arrest pending further investigation, as police vowed zero tolerance for such incidents.

A video of the incident showed Abbot Nikodemus Schnabel walking with a woman who was filming him and herself. The priest says “shalom” (hello) into the camera before being approached by two youths who shout “f***ing Jesus” in Hebrew and spit at him.

Schnabel said that the footage of the incident shows “a part of the reality of my life that’s rarely filmed. I’ve not sought publicity with them, as there are much more terrible things that people have to suffer here. Let’s pray for peace and reconciliation.”

Foreign Minister Israel Katz condemned the “ugly incident” on Sunday.

“Under Israeli rule, members of all faiths enjoy total freedom of worship, as never has been the case before,” he said in a statement.

The Palestinian Authority’s foreign ministry also condemned the incident, saying that the assault was a result of incitement by far-right Israeli government members such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and calling it an expression of a “racist colonial culture” that “denies the existence of the other.”

It was the first such reported incident since October, when police said they had marked a significant rise in attacks on Christians in Jerusalem, with 17 incidents reported in the six months prior.

Five people were arrested on October 4 on suspicion of spitting at Christians during Sukkot events in the Old City. The suspects were arrested concerning two separate incidents that happened over the holiday.

Though no incidents have been reported in the intervening four months, Israel’s war with Hamas, which began with the terror group’s October 7 onslaught, has overshadowed many other domestic issues in the country.

The Inter-Church Center, which coordinates between denominations, said in April that it was seeing a heavy rise in assaults and harassment but that incidents often go unreported.

A couple of days before the war began, then-foreign minister Eli Cohen spoke to his Vatican counterpart, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, and condemned the attacks against Christians in Israel. The two also discussed a potential visit by Gallagher to Israel, but if any plans were in the works, the war likely put them on hold.

The incidents over Sukkot were strongly condemned by Israeli leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called them “sacrilege and simply unacceptable” and Chief Rabbi David Lau, who said they were “unwarranted.”

View of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, as it seen from the Austrian Hospice, June 24, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

At the time, Ben Gvir and Religious Zionist party MK Simcha Rothman both said that the attacks were wrong but that the reaction to them was blown out of proportion.

“I think spitting at Christians is not a criminal case,” Ben Gvir said in an interview at the time. “Not everything justifies an arrest.”

“It’s unfortunate that phenomena that are fully worthy of condemnation are blown out of proportion and echoed by police,” Rothman told the Ynet news site.

Latin patriarch Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa warned early last year that Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, was making life harder for Christians living in Israel.

Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land, leads the Christmas midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity compound, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser, Pool)

Pizzaballa told The Associated Press that Christians had come under increasing attack from extremists who were harassing clergy and vandalizing religious property at a quickened pace.

“These [attackers] feel they are protected… that the cultural and political atmosphere now can justify, or tolerate, actions against Christians,” he said.

Agencies and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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