An unknown person burned a book in which visitors inscribe prayers at Jerusalem's Dormition Abbey Monday night, near where Pope Frances had conducted Mass. The incident apparently occurred only a few minutes after the pontiff left the area.
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Jerusalem police say that according to eyewitnesses, the suspect had a “non-Jewish” appearance, and that monks at the church on Mount Zion said they saw a strange man who was not wearing a yarmulke.
According to church officials, the burned item was a book of supplications, in which visitors write down their own personal prayers.
The abbey is located outside the Old City walls and is adjacent to the Cenacle, which Christians believe was the site of the Last Supper; the pope had conducted his afternoon Mass there.
The area was closed off by security forces, with the police holding the keys to the structure during the papal visit. Church officials say no one could have entered the immediate area without permission.
Father Nikodemus Schnabel, a spokesman for the abbey, said the church was full of worshipers until 6:30 P.M., and that the incident occurred between 6:30 and 7 P.M.
“Around 7 o’clock, one of the monks smelled fire, and we got to the place and saw that someone had taken the book of prayers and gone behind the church organ, where he set the book on fire in a small storeroom,” said Schnabel. The monks managed to put out the fire themselves, but when firefighters arrived a short time later the book was totally destroyed and damage had been done to the storeroom.
“Luckily the organ didn’t catch fire, which could have sent the whole church up in flames,” Schnabel added. “We don’t know who could have done this, but because of the timing, it could be that it was connected to the pope’s visit.”
Amnon Ramon, a lecturer in comparative religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says the incident constitutes a test for the Israeli government which has declared that it protects all of the country’s holy sites.
In recent weeks there was considerable tension on Mount Zion due to claims by right-wing Jewish elements that during the pope’s visit, the Israeli government planned to hand over parts of the compound there, which includes the Tomb of David, to the Vatican. Meanwhile, Christians have complained of an increase of violence against them on Mount Zion, including stone-throwing and spitting.
On Sunday night, 26 right-wing Jewish activists were arrested at David’s Tomb after they refused to evacuate it. The following days, police refused to let people demonstrate against the pope near the structure.
A short time after the pope departed for Italy Monday night, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, said he was pleased that the visit had passed without any problems given the recent hate crimes, among them those directed at Christians.
“A small minority are committing extremist acts,” Twal told Haaretz.
Last Friday unknown persons sprayed graffiti reading “Jesus = Son of a bitch,” on the wall surrounding a church in Be’er Sheva’s Old City. Police launched an investigation, the municipality denounced the act and city employees quickly erased the graffiti.