Just weeks before Pope Francis makes his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land in late May, Christians in Israel are grappling with an upsurge in threats and attacks on churches by Jewish extremists.
Last week, an assailant defaced the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, the local headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, scribbling graffiti in Hebrew reading, "Death to Arabs and Christians and to everyone who hates Israel." This followed a letter received by a top Catholic official that threatened to kill him and other Catholic clergy in Israel.
Vandals also damaged a Romanian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, spray-painting it with the words: "price tag," "Jesus is garbage," and "King David for the Jews." It was another of a wave of both anti-Christian and anti-Arab graffiti and vandalism that has swept through Israel in recent weeks.
The attacks are largely believed to be carried by Jewish extremists who are now almost daily defacing Christian and Muslim property and places of worship inside Israel and areas controlled by Palestinian authorities. The extremists say their graffiti and vandalism is the "price tag" for the government trying to restrain West Bank Jewish settlers.
On Sunday, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, the Vatican's most senior cleric in Israel, said, "The unrestrained acts of vandalism poison the atmosphere, the atmosphere of coexistence and the atmosphere of collaboration, especially in these two weeks prior to the visit of Pope Francis."
The patriarch called the price-tag assaults acts of "terror." He accused the authorities of not doing enough to bring the perpetrators to justice, saying, "The actions are drawing only condemnation by Israeli leaders but few arrests."
"This wave of extremist actions of terror is surely of grave concern to all reasonable persons," Twal said. The Jordanian-born patriarch added, "The government of Israel must be concerned, because it is very bad for the State of Israel's image abroad. It is also a blight on the democracy that Israel ascribes to itself."
"Everyone knows the Israeli police set up special units to track attacks like these. In light of the fact that the great majority of vandalism acts do not lead to trials, we must ask if the government is willing to get down to the root of the problem," he said.
Twal did, however, praise Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni for holding an emergency meeting last week with the country's top security officials to try to tackle the growing problem. Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that Israeli security services fear that Jewish radicals might carry out a major hate crime against Christians or their institutions to garner media attention during the pope's pilgrimage.
An earlier statement by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said, "The bishops are very concerned about the lack of security and lack of responsiveness from the [Israeli] political sector, and fear an escalation of violence." It added that there has been "no gesture of solidarity or condemnation" from Israel's political establishment. "We feel neither safe nor protected."
At the start of May, Bishop Boulos Marcuzzo, Latin Patriarchal Vicar General in Israel, received a message from a suspected Jewish extremist threatening to kill the Catholic leader, his priests, and other Christians who refused to leave Israel by May 5, 2014. (This message for unknown reasons excluded Protestants and Anglicans.)