The "price tag" vandalism this week of the monastery at Latrun, in which the culprits sprayed the building's facade with the words "Jesus is a monkey" and set the front door alight, prompted a fierce statement of condemnation signed by Catholic church leaders here. One of the statement's senior signatories, who holds the title of custos (Latin for guardian ) of holy sites on behalf of the Vatican, is a Franciscan priest of Italian origin named Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa. Prior to the church's statement, which questioned what was going on in Israeli society that would prompt such an act, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the vandalism, calling it "a criminal act" and that "those responsible for it must be severely punished."
In a rare interview to the Israeli media just a month before he steps down from his current post, Pizzaballa cautioned Israelis over how Christians are treated here. "When you say 'Christianity' to the Israelis," he said, "they immediately think of the Holocaust and the [Spanish] Inquisition. People don't know that we are here and that we have roots [here]," adding that this attitude is reflected throughout Israeli society.
In a reference to the long-standing, continual incidents of Orthodox Jewish extremists in Jerusalem spitting at Christian clergy, Pizzaballa said: "When I came to the country, I was told that I should know that if I walk around with a frock in the city [of Jerusalem], people would spit on me, and I shouldn't be offended, it's normal."
No matter how high his position, any priest who makes his way around the city will sooner or later be spat upon and cursed by a yeshiva student, he added.
Pizzaballa, who has been living in Israel for 22 years, is the head of the Franciscan order in the Middle East. As custos, he is one of the senior figures in the Catholic Church and has custody of most of the Christian holy sites in the country, including Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which Christians regard as the site of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, and Bethelem's Church of the Nativity. After more than two decades here, he said he knows the areas of Jerusalem where he is at risk of being spat upon, including the area of Jaffa Gate and the Armenian Quarter.
This week's vandalism at the Latrun monastery is the latest in a recent streak of attacks on Christian institutions. In February, following incidents in Jerusalem, Pizzaballa wrote to President Shimon Peres that in recent years, he and his colleagues had learned to ignore provocations, but that now they were escalating to the point that they had become intolerable.
Following his letter to Peres, however, anti-Christian animosity even surfaced in the Knesset, after Christian bibles were sent to parliament members and National Union MK Michael Ben Ari ripped a copy of the New Testament in front of the camera. "It was shocking," said Pizzaballa. "If you as a Jew want people to respect you, you need to respect others. There are billions of Christians for whom this book is holy."
He also took exception to what he said was the weak response by the political system and the public at large to Ben Ari's act, saying it was limited to statements that Ben Ari didn't need to do what he did. "It's a lack of sensitivity," said the cleric. "Such a serious thing occurs and no one does anything. In practice, it negates our existence here."
The power of the custos to influence the political system here is limited, however. "All of the heads of the [Christian] denominations approached the Knesset speaker [Reuven Rivlin] in protest. Our communities are asking why we don't do something, but what can we do other than write a letter?" And a week before the vandalism at the Latrun monastery, after the Franciscans established a residence on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives, it was attacked by a large group of young Muslims.
Pizzaballa doesn't expect the Christian presence in Jerusalem to disappear, however. "I am not that pessimistic. We are a minority within a minority and we always remain a small minority, but I don't think we will disappear completely, as happened in North Africa or Turkey, because ultimately this is the Holy Land. There are holy places. There's a presence. The Christian establishment, for all of its weakness, will remain. The question is the type of Christian population and its nature."
Pizzaballa has required that his monks who come to live here learn either Hebrew or Arabic. "Most Israelis don't know a thing about the Christian presence in the country. Both we and the Israeli public are to blame for this. We need to talk more," he said.
Pizzaballa is preoccupied currently with the situation in Syria and visited the country many times over the years, most recently about six months ago, but since then the Syrians have barred entry by him and many other foreigners. He said there is great uncertainty over the fate of Christians there although they have not been targeted as Christians by the violence.
Referring to his church's desire to regain rights to the traditional site of the Last Supper on Mount Zion, which it lost 500 years ago and which sits on top of the traditional tomb of King David, Pizzaballa said he is not seeking a change in the status quo. "But Jerusalem teaches us to you can't take any decision alone," he added. "You need the other [party]. That's the difficulty and the beauty of Jerusalem."