President Reuven Rivlin expressed “sadness and shock” Thursday at an apparent arson and graffiti hate crime attack on a building within a Greek Orthodox compound in Jerusalem earlier in the day, his spokesperson said.
Speaking by phone to Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, Rivlin said it was “inconceivable that an act like this could happen in a house of prayer, this is a heinous crime, there must be an investigation and those responsible must be brought to justice.”
The president added that the perpetrators of the attack “not only threaten to set fire to places of worship holy to all of us, but ignite the regional powder keg upon which we all sit.”
The fire started at approximately 4 a.m. in the bathrooms of the building, a Greek Orthodox seminary on Mount Zion, outside the Old City of Jerusalem.
The walls of the building were vandalized with ultra-nationalist and racist graffiti.
“Jesus is a son of a whore” and “Redemption of Zion” were among the slogans painted in the areas surrounding the bathrooms.
Three teams of firefighters were called to the seminary, which is located near the Jaffa Gate of the Old City, and quickly extinguished the flames, preventing it from spreading through the rest of the building.
Emergency personnel searched the area but did not find any suspects at the scene.
“The protection and conservation of the holy sites, both those holy for us and those holy for others, is our obligation as a state and as a society, and we cannot allow such attacks to sabotage the common fabric of our lives here,” Rivlin said. “We all have a responsibility to put an end to these terrible acts.”
Jerusalem police have opened an investigation into the incident as a hate crime.
Mayor Nir Barkat condemned the alleged arson and promised to follow the case as it develops. “There is no room for such deplorable activity in Jerusalem,” he said in a statement. “We must eradicate this behavior and bring those responsible to justice.”
It was hardly the first case of vandalism against Christian sites.
Two months ago police arrested a 21-year-old Jewish man who had allegedly damaged a cross and sculpture in the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem.
Before Pope Francis arrived in Israel last May, vandals also spray-painted a Catholic church with anti-Christian graffiti.
On Wednesday morning, a mosque in a village near Bethlehem was set alight and anti-Arab graffiti was sprayed on its walls.
Worshipers arriving for prayers at the mosque in Jab’a, which lies to the west of Bethlehem, discovered the fire and quickly put it out. The carpeting inside and the walls of the building were damaged but there were no reports of injuries.
Eyewitnesses said the offensive graffiti, written in Hebrew, called for revenge attacks against Arabs and Muslims.
Local Palestinians believe the arson attack was the work of Jewish settlers.
The Arab Joint List party released a statement condemning both Thursday’s alleged arson and other “price tag” attacks against Christian and Muslim sites. The criminals responsible for these attacks, the party claims, “are being strengthened by the racist and fascist atmosphere sweeping through the Jewish Street, under the auspices of the far-right parties.”
The party added that these actions are inspired by the government “which has implemented clear policies of discrimination, exclusion and oppression.”