Anger as abbot told to hide his cross on visit to Western Wall with German minister

Nikodemus Schnabel protests after being told his attire is ‘inappropriate’; state-run Heritage Foundation apologizes for ‘distress caused’ but defends request

Abbot Nikodemus Schnabel, right, and Germany's Federal Minister of Education and Research Bettina Stark-Watzinger at the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem, July 19, 2023. (Screenshot: Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Abbot Nikodemus Schnabel, right, and Germany's Federal Minister of Education and Research Bettina Stark-Watzinger at the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem, July 19, 2023. (Screenshot: Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

A Christian abbot was asked Wednesday by an official at Jerusalem’s Western Wall to hide his cross while accompanying Germany’s education minister to the holy site, drawing censure and an apology in the latest incident of Jewish-Christian tensions in the capital’s Old City.

The incident, which took place outside the prayer area of the Jewish holy site, was filmed and posted online by a reporter for German news outlet Der Spiegel.

Nikodemus Schnabel, the abbot of the Old City’s Dormition Abbey, was stopped by a woman who was said to be an employee of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Haredi-dominated state-run body that administers the site.

The footage shows the woman telling Schnabel the pectoral cross he was wearing was “really big and inappropriate for this place” and asking him to stow it away, as Germany’s Federal Minister of Education and Research Bettina Stark-Watzinger stands by.

“This is very harsh, you’re not respecting my religion. You’re hindering me from my human right,” Schnabel says. “This is not a provocation, I am an abbot. This is my dress. The cross is part of my dress code. I’m a Roman Catholic abbot. You want me to not dress as my faith, that is the reality.”

The visit eventually took place as planned, but Schnabel continued to complain about the incident on Twitter, calling it “not so nice” and blaming the hard-right government, which was sworn in almost seven months ago.

“It is painful to see how the climate in this wonderful city is changing more and more for the worse under the new government,” the abbot wrote. “Jerusalem is big enough for everyone!”

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation issued a statement apologizing “for the distress that was caused,” but defending the actions of the woman while also noting that the site is open to all and there are no rules “on this issue” there

“The usher approached and innocently and politely asked whether the cross could be covered to prevent discomfort as happened recently in the Old City, out of a desire to respect the guest and the place. After he refused, his entry was of course not prevented and the usher respected [this] and headed off,” the statement read.

While there have long been occasional incidents of vandalism and harassment against Christian clergy in Jerusalem’s Old City, there has been a noticeable rise in attacks in recent months.

In November, two soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces’ Givati Brigade were detained on suspicion of spitting at the Armenian archbishop and other pilgrims during a procession in the Old City. In early January, two Jewish teens were arrested for damaging graves at the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion.

The next week, the Maronite community center in the northern city of Ma’alot-Tarshiha was vandalized by unknown assailants over the Christmas holiday.

The word ‘revenge’ is graffitied in Hebrew on a wall in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, January 11, 2022. (Armenian Patriarchate)

Jerusalem’s Armenian community buildings were also targeted by vandals, with multiple discriminatory phrases graffitied on the exterior of structures in the Armenian Quarter. On a Thursday night in late January, a gang of religious Jewish teens threw chairs at an Armenian restaurant inside the city’s New Gate. Vandalism at the Church of the Flagellation occurred the very next week.

And in March, a resident of southern Israel was arrested after attacking priests with an iron bar at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Gethsemane.

Some tie the rise in aggressive behavior recently to the composition of the current Israeli government, which is made up of ultra-Orthodox and extreme-right factions fiercely protective of Israel’s Orthodox Jewish character and strongly opposed to public displays of Christian worship.

President Isaac Herzog earlier this month condemned the growing trend, calling it “a true disgrace.”

“I utterly condemn violence, in all its forms, directed by a small and extreme group, towards the holy places of the Christian faith, and against Christian clergy in Israel,” Herzog said at a state memorial ceremony for Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl.

“This includes spitting, and the desecration of graves and churches,” he added, noting that the phenomenon has been on the rise “in the last weeks and months especially.”

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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