Pope Francis and President Shimon Peres exchange greetings during a private meeting at the Vatican.
Pope Francis and President Shimon Peres exchange greetings during a private meeting at the Vatican, April 30, 2013. Photo by Reuters
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The Israel Police and the Shin Bet fear that right-wing extremists might exploit Pope Francis' visit to the Holy Land on May 24-26 to carry out a major hate crime to drum up media attention.

The security services estimate that the hate crime would target the Christian population in Israel or Christian sites across the country.

The various police districts were instructed by authorities to focus their operational and intelligence efforts on the Christian population and its institutions, and to consolidate extra security in these communities until the end of the visit.

The police was also asked to increase its security assessments of the right-wing extremists in their various districts, with particular emphasis on holy sites.

The Roman Catholic Church in Jerusalem, preparing for the visit, has expressed alarm over threats to Christians scrawled by suspected Jewish extremists on church property in the Holy Land.

In an incident Monday, "Death to Arabs and Christians and all those who hate Israel" was daubed in Hebrew on an outer column of the Office of the Assembly of Bishops at the Notre Dame Center in East Jerusalem.

"The wave of fanaticism and intimation against Christians continues," the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem posted on its website, referring to so-called "price tag" incidents.

"Mere coincidence?" the patriarchate statement asked. "The Notre Dame Center is property of the Holy See and this provocation comes two weeks before Pope Francis' visit to the Holy Land and Jerusalem."

The bishops' statement added that "it was very concerned about the lack of security" for Christian property and what they called the "lack of responsiveness from the political sector" after earlier attacks. They feared "an escalation of violence."

In recent years, hate attacks have targeted mosques, Palestinian homes and Christian monasteries in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in a 1967 war and Palestinians seek as part of a future state.

"Price tagging" - a reference by far-right Jews to making the government "pay" for any curbs on Israeli settlements in the West Bank - has also occurred in Israeli military installations in the West Bank and Arab villages in Israel.

The Patriarchate said the heads of churches in the Holy Land are preparing "a series of actions aimed at informing local and international public opinion, and to make the authorities and law officials aware of their responsibilities."

Pope Francis is due to visit Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and Jerusalem, where he will meet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians.

The pontiff, who like his predecessors John Paul and Benedict has friendly ties with Jewish religious leaders, is due to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Notre Dame Center, located just outside the walls of the old city.

Israel boosts investigation into hate crimes

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon has described these hate crimes as terrorism and pledged to step up efforts to curb them. Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said Wednesday they would ask the cabinet to classify groups behind "price tag" attacks as terrorist organisations, opening the way for the possible use of detention without trial against members.

The Israel Police has also decided, meanwhile, that the investigation of the more serious hate crimes, such as the arson attack on a mosque in the town of Fureidis and similar incidents in the West Bank, should stay under the responsibility of the unit currently in charge of looking into crimes with nationalist motives, based in the Judea and Samaria district.

Both the police and the Shin Bet have identified a direct link between a number of the incidents both within and outside of the Green Line.

The perpetrators of the crimes in the Galilee village of Jish, and in the towns of Fureidis and Umm al-Fahm, are known rightists from the West Bank, apparently moving their operations from the West Bank inside the Green Line.

The Judea and Samaria unit, which is most familiar with the suspects, will handle the larger investigations – carried out by known extremists - even those that take place in other districts.

Crimes perpetrated by unorganized groups or individuals, such as the recent attacks in Yokne'am, will still be dealt with by local district polices.

The frequency of "price tag" attacks - 14 have been reported this year - has risen sharply over the past month since the Israeli military demolished structures in a West Bank settlement built without government authorisation.

Despite dozens of arrests over the past year of suspected "price-taggers," there have been few convictions. Police say there are only a few score culprits, many known by name, but about half of them are minors to whom courts show leniency.