Two teens to face charges for vandalizing Christian cemetery in Jerusalem

Pair, from central region of the country, suspected of ‘deliberate vandalism’ with a racist motive at Protestant Mount Zion Cemetery, where 28 tombstones were damaged

Damaged tombstones after vandalism at the Protestant Mount Zion Cemetery, January, 2023. (Israel Police)
Damaged tombstones after vandalism at the Protestant Mount Zion Cemetery, January, 2023. (Israel Police)

Charges are to be brought against two teenagers suspected of vandalizing dozens of graves at a historic Christian cemetery in Jerusalem earlier this month, Israel Police said in a statement Monday.

An investigation found that 28 tombstones were vandalized at the Protestant Mount Zion Cemetery.

The two suspects, aged 18 and 14, are from the central region of the country, police said, without giving any further details of their identities.

Security camera footage of the attack showed two young men wearing a Jewish skullcap and tzitzit, the knotted ritual fringes worn by observant Jews, knocking over crosses, breaking tombstones and throwing debris over the graves.

During questioning, police discovered that the “deliberate vandalism” was done for racist reasons, the statement said. The suspects were arrested days after the vandalism was reported, and their remand extended until they were eventually released to house arrest.

The graves of Christian figures at the cemetery were found pushed over and pulled from their foundations, unsettling the city’s Christian minority and drawing worldwide condemnation. The cemetery is more than 170 years old and houses prominent members of the armed forces and clergy in the holy city.

The Anglican Church in Jerusalem denounced the desecration at the time as the latest hate crime targeting the Christian community in Jerusalem amid the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Among the destroyed tombs was one containing a 19th-century bust of Samuel Gobat, the second Protestant bishop in Jerusalem who died in 1879, the Episcopal diocese said. The graves of three police officers, British citizens serving in the police force of what was then British-ruled Palestine, were also vandalized.

The diocese cautioned that the desecration of the cemetery should be seen as an ominous warning about “hatred against Christians.”

“Many stone crosses were the targets of the vandals, clearly indicating that these criminal acts were motivated by religious bigotry,” it said.

The vandalism drew widespread international condemnation.

The Protestant Cemetery on the venerated Mount Zion just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls was established in 1848 and was part of territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War. The cemetery houses the graves of dozens of Palestinian police officers killed during the First and Second World Wars as well as Christian leaders who died in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Hosam Naoum, a Palestinian Anglican bishop, touches a damaged grave where vandals desecrated dozens of graves at the historic Protestant Cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion in Jerusalem, January 4, 2023. (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

Mount Zion, associated in Christian tradition with the site of the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his crucifixion, is also sacred to Jews and Muslims and has been at the center of competing religious claims.

Jewish extremists have defaced church property on Mount Zion in the past years. Jews consider Mount Zion the traditional burial place of the biblical King David and some ultra-Orthodox and nationalist activists have opposed Christian prayer rights at the site. A Jewish seminary known as the Diaspora Yeshiva is located in many buildings in the Mount Zion compound.

Some 16,000 Christians live in Jerusalem, the majority of whom are Palestinian. Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, while Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital for their hoped-for independent state.

In December 2021, Christian leaders in the Holy Land warned that their communities were 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 were 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.

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