ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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Herzog, police chief meet Christian leaders to condemn attacks on community

President, police show increasing determination to combat rise in incidents; latest gathering comes at Catholic site in Haifa where Hasidim have been trying to enter for prayer

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (L), President Isaac Herzog (C), and Latin Patriach Pierbattista Pizzaballa at the Stella Maris Monastery in Haifa, August 9, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO)
Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (L), President Isaac Herzog (C), and Latin Patriach Pierbattista Pizzaballa at the Stella Maris Monastery in Haifa, August 9, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/ GPO)

As part of his recent efforts to bring public awareness to the issue of the safety of Israel’s Christian community, President Isaac Herzog visited Haifa’s Stella Maris Monastery to meet with Christian leaders.

“In recent months, we have witnessed extremely serious phenomena in the treatment of members of Christian communities in the Holy Land, our brothers and sisters, Christian citizens, who feel attacked in their places of prayer and their cemeteries, on the street,” said Herzog in front of the 19th-century Carmelite monastery.”

“It is entirely unacceptable in every way,” said the president.

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

Pointing at the Jewish tradition that the Haifa monastery also houses the grave of the prophet Elisha, members of the Breslov Hasidic sect have been showing up at the Catholic complex attempting to pray, leading to a number of physical altercations.

The local Catholic community has begun erecting a fence around the property to protect it.

People gather for a protest at the Stella Maris Monastery in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, June 18, 2023. (Flash90)

“We must uproot this phenomenon from its roots,” said Herzog, referring to attacks on Christians and their holy sites across the country.

Seated next to Herzog at a discussion in the monastery with the heads of Christian communities in Israel, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said that the police “are undertaking creative operations to eradicate all these small phenomena, these phenomena that affect how everyone feels. We are here to give you a feeling of security.”

Shabtai said that his force would do whatever it takes in the field to protect Christians.

(From Left) Abbot of Stella Maris Father Jean Joseph Bergara, President Isaac Herzog, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, and Latin Patriach Pierbattista Pizzaballa at the Stella Maris Monastery in Haifa, August 9, 2023 (Kobi Gideon/ GPO)

Seated across from Herzog and Shabtai, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III said in English: “We need peace. We are people that promote the values of the Bible. We promote the values of mutual respect and freedom of worship.”

Speaking in Hebrew, Latin Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa thanked the police for taking action, and the president for prioritizing the safety of Christian communities.

“We have to work together to encourage dialogue between us, solidarity between us, and brotherhood between us,” said Pizzaballa.

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (left) and Jerusalem District Commander Doron Turgeman at a security assessment in Jerusalem, March 31, 2023. (Israel Police).

“We all believe in one God,” said Herzog.

“We are all sons of the same God,” responded Pizzaballa.

Israel Police, which has been criticized for its inability to stamp out the phenomenon, has shown renewed interest in the problem recently.

On Tuesday, Jerusalem District Police Commander Doron Turgeman and Old City Precinct Commander Avi Cohen met with Christian leaders in the capital. Cohen presented steps the police were taking to counter attacks on clergy in the Old City.

According to police, 16 investigations have been opened this year, and 21 arrests and detentions have been carried out in connection with attacks on Christians.

Armenian Christian clergymen attend prayers on Palm Sunday, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 5, 2015. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

“We are aware of the issue and handle it with all the tools at our disposal,” said Turgeman. “I instructed the David Precinct to focus overt and covert operational activity against anyone who commits hate crimes, vandalism and violence of any kind against religious institutions and Christian clerics, including in the Old City of Jerusalem.”

In July, Herzog first came out forcefully in public against growing attacks against Christians in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem, calling them “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.”

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

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.

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.

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