Vatican Urges Israel to Secure Christian Sites During Pope's Visit

Statement by Vatican's Holy Land custodian follows Haaretz report on concern over major hate crime among Israeli security services.

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The Roman Catholic body in charge of the Vatican's properties in the Holy Land on Thursday urged Israel to safeguard Christian holy sites, following a number of vandalism attacks on churches and monasteries ahead of a visit by Pope Francis.

The statement from Custodia Terrae Sanctae, a branch of the Franciscan order that has traditionally served as custodian of Catholic holy sites in Israel, followed by several hours a report in Haaretz that Israel Police were concerned about a major attack on Christian sites during the pope’s visit. A similar statement was issued by the Latin Patriarchate on Wednesday.

Noting that the recent escalation in hate crimes against Christian targets appeared to be connected to the pope’s visit, the Vatican's statement voiced concern over the possibility of a larger attack on Christian sites during the visit and urged the law enforcement agencies to take urgent action against the extremists thought to be responsible.

Wadi Abu Nassar, a senior advisor to the Catholic Church who is considered close to the Vatican, told Haaretz that church officials had warned in the past of an escalation in anti-Christian crimes. “We’re already in an atmosphere of terror,” he said, and the authorities must address the problem, “because in the end, it’s not just Christians who will be hurt, but Israel’s standing in the international community.”

Abu Nassar stressed that there is currently no intention of changing the pope’s schedule. Nevertheless, he said, he found the current situation “surprising.” In most countries, the media focus is on the pope’s personality and actions in the run-up to a papal visit, he said, but “in Israel, it’s preoccupied with threats by extremists to undermine the visit’s agenda and atmosphere, even though the pope is coming to the Holy Land with a message of peace and brotherhood among all peoples and faiths.”

Haaretz reported that Israeli police and the Shin Bet fear that right-wing extremists might exploit the pope's visit to May 24-26 to carry out a major hate crime as a means of drumming 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.