Police arrest two teens for vandalizing Christian cemetery in Jerusalem

City’s police chief meets Greek Orthodox Patriarch to assure him attacks on religious institutions will not be tolerated; suspects ages 14 and 18 from central Israel

Damaged tombstones at the Protestant Mount Zion Cemetery, in Jerusalem, January 3, 2023. (Israel Police)
Damaged tombstones at the Protestant Mount Zion Cemetery, in Jerusalem, January 3, 2023. (Israel Police)

Israeli police said Friday that they had arrested two teens from central Israel for the “deliberate” vandalism of a Christian cemetery in Jerusalem that resulted in damage to roughly 30 graves.

In a statement, police said they had launched an investigation after receiving the report of the destruction and discovered that “this was a deliberate act of vandalism. After several investigative acts, two suspects were arrested yesterday, aged 14 and 18, both residents of central Israel.”

Police did not identify the suspects or detail their alleged motivation.

The statement said that Jerusalem District Police Commander Doron Turgeman met Thursday with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, to update him on the investigation into the incident at the Protestant Mount Zion Cemetery.

“Every attack on religious sites or institutions is serious and harms the unique and fragile fabric of life that exists in the city for members of all faiths and sects,” Turgeman was quoted as telling the Patriarch.

The announcement of the arrest came following international condemnation of the vandalism, including from the US.

Jerusalem District Police Commander Doron Turgeman (l) meets with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III in Jerusalem on January 5, 2023 (Israel Police)

“Concerned to see a Mt. Zion Holy Site targeted again. We spoke with the Churches, and welcome Israeli, PA, and the intl. community calls for accountability. Religious site vandalism by anyone is unacceptable. Jerusalem must be a city for all of its people,” the US Office of Palestinian Affairs wrote on its Twitter account.

The Biden administration’s antisemitism envoy, Deborah Lipstadt, tweeted: “I condemn this despicable act. Desecration of any and all holy sites is unacceptable, and the sanctity of burial must be respected. Families have the right to peacefully lay to rest loved ones.”

“We must work together to call out all forms of hate whenever and wherever they occur,” she added.

Widely shared security camera footage on Sunday showed two young men — both wearing Jewish skullcaps and tzitzit, the knotted ritual fringes worn by observant Jews — breaking into the cemetery, knocking over stone crosses and smashing and stomping on tombstones, leaving a trail of debris and broken headstones.

Samuel Gobat, then-bishop of Jerusalem, opened the cemetery in 1848. It is now owned by the Church Missionary Trust Association Ltd, an Anglican organization.

Gobat’s grave was among those damaged along with those belonging to three British Mandate police officers.

The Foreign Ministry denounced the attack as an “immoral act” and “an affront to religion.” Jerusalem’s Anglican Archbishop Hosam Naoum called it a “clear hate crime.” The British consulate said it was just the latest in a string of assaults on the Christian community in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Mount Zion, associated in Christian tradition with the site of the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples before his crucifixion, is also sacred to Jews and Muslims and has been at the center of competing religious claims throughout the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Hosam Naoum, a Palestinian Anglican bishop, pauses where vandals desecrated more than 30 graves at a historic Protestant Cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion in Jerusalem, January 4, 2023. (AP Photo/ Mahmoud Illean)

In December 2021, Christian leaders in the Holy Land warned that their communities are under threat of being driven from the region by extremist Israeli radical groups, and called for dialogue on preserving their presence.

Patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem issued a joint statement similarly warning of the danger posed by radical groups they said are aiming at “diminishing the Christian presence.”

Extremist Jewish activists have for years carried out vandalism against Christian sites in Jerusalem and other areas of Israel, including hate graffiti and arson. The extremists also target Palestinians.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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