Sectarian tensions are at what might be an all-time high in Jerusalem, the result of a confluence of events and incidents that are affecting relations among Christians, Jews and Muslims in the city and beyond. These include developments related to the scheduled visit to the region later this month of Pope Francis and a steep increase in hate crimes – so-called “price tag” attacks – vandalism and graffiti, for the most part – targeting Muslim and Christian sites and carried out by right-wing Jewish extremists.
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Officials in the Catholic Church, meanwhile, say an officer in the Israel Police called on Friday and requested the removal of a sign welcoming the pope and placed on a building belonging to the Franciscan Order, near the Old City’s Jaffa Gate.
According to the church official, the officer explained that the sign could inflame passions and lead to the posting of signs by Jews who are against the papal visit.
The Franciscans decided not to remove the sign, but also not to prevent the police from doing so. Jerusalem police officials denied asking for the sign’s removal, saying they only passed onto the Franciscans a message from city officials who requested the sign’s removal for legal reasons only. Municipal officials confirmed the police claims, and said the sign was prohibited in accordance with regulations governing buildings marked for preservation.
Church officials expressed surprise at the request. One official, who did not want to be identified by name, said he and his colleagues “question the fact that the police, instead of taking action against the extremists who paint hate slogans on mosques and churches, choose to remove a sign with a positive message that welcomes the pope in three languages. We hope the police will act with the same determination to prevent the growing incitement and violence against Christians,” the source said.
Issues related to a long-running dispute between Israel and the Vatican over a sensitive site on Mount Zion – a dispute that both parties hope to end during the papal visit – is adding more fuel to the fire.
Additionally, remarks on Friday by the popular and internationally respected Israeli author Amos Oz, who termed the perpetrators of price tag attacks “Hebrew neo-Nazis,” have drawn harsh criticism and cannot be expected to have a calming effect.
During his visit, Pope Francis is scheduled to pray at the Coenaculum, or the Room of the Last Supper (also known as the Upper Room or the Cenacle), on Mount Zion, in what is expected to be a tense event. Right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews have been waging an unprecedented campaign against an agreement they claim will be signed between Israel and the Vatican giving the Catholic Church possession of the second-story chamber, which is above the traditional site of the tomb of the biblical King David.
The campaign includes harsh accusations against the Church and makes reference to the Holocaust, the Inquisition and missionary activities. The fact that both Israel and the Church deny that a deal is imminent, and that in any event it would not affect the arrangements at the site, has done nothing to quell the protests.
A rally is planned for Mount Zion tomorrow, “in light of the government’s decision to hand over to the Vatican the upper part of David’s Tomb,” according to organizers. Yisca Harani, a scholar of Christianity who is in regular contact with the churches on Mount Zion, warns of the potential for violence on the day of the protest. She has appealed to the churches to keep their people inside, saying, “Let them learn from what happened to Jews on Good Friday in the Middle Ages. There are some days it’s better not to be out and about in the streets.”
The structure on Mount Zion is considered holy by all three monotheistic faiths: Jews and Muslims believe it is where King David, as well as his successor, King Solomon, and where nine other Hebrew kings were buried.
On Friday morning, anti-Christian graffiti was found on a wall adjacent to a Roman church on Hahoma Hashlishit Street in Jerusalem: “Price tag, King David is for the Jews, Jesus is garbage.”
Speaking at a Tel Aviv event marking his 75th birthday, Oz said Friday that terms like “hilltop youth” and “price tag” are “sweet names for a monster that needs to be called what it is: Hebrew neo-Nazis groups.”
Oz added that in his mind, perhaps the only difference between neo-Nazis around the world and perpetrators of hate crimes in Israel is that “our neo-Nazi groups enjoy the support of numerous nationalist or even racist legislators, as well as rabbis who give them what is in my view pseudo-religious justification.”