Israel hate crimes 'poison atmosphere' for pope visit
Published Sunday 11/05/2014 (updated) 13/05/2014 17:24
An Israeli soldier walks past a bus on which suspected Jewish
vandals painted graffiti reading in Hebrew "Gentiles in the land
are enemies" on March 24, 2014 (AFP Ahmad Gharabli)
HAIFA (AFP) -- The head of the Roman Catholic church in the Holy Land said Sunday that Israeli hate crimes against local Muslims and Christians are souring relations ahead of a papal visit.
"The unrestrained acts of vandalism poison the atmosphere -- the atmosphere of co-existence and the atmosphere of collaboration, especially in these two weeks prior to the visit of Pope Francis," Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal said.
"It is also a blight on the democracy that Israel ascribes to itself," he told a news conference in the northern port city of Haifa.
The pope's visit is scheduled to begin in Jordan on May 24, and he is then due to spend two days in the Holy Land from May 25.
On Friday, vandals spray-painted anti-Christian graffiti on a Jerusalem church, just days after the Roman Catholic church demanded that Israel act following the discovery of racist slogans daubed on a Vatican-owned property elsewhere in the city.
"The bishops are very concerned about the lack of security and lack of responsiveness from the political sector, and fear an escalation of violence," the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said in a statement on Wednesday.
In the wake of last week's attack, Israeli police moved to boost security around holy sites.
Israel has been struggling to contain the spiraling number of so-called "price tag" hate crimes by Jewish extremists that target Palestinian property, including mosques and churches.
Although police have made scores of arrests, there have been no successful prosecutions for price tag attacks, and the government has come under mounting pressure to authorize the Shin Bet internal security agency to intervene.
Increase in attacks
Police, in a joint operation with the Shin Bet, arrested two Israel men on Sunday on suspicion of committing hate crimes.
"There were two guys that were arrested by police who are suspected of being involved in criminal activity from nationalist motives," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP.
"They are being questioned in connection with a number of incidents," he said.
Rosenfeld acknowledged there had been "a definite increase" in hate crimes against churches and mosques recently, but he could not confirm a clear connection with the papal visit.
Twal took the Israeli authorities to task for what he saw as laxity in pursuing the perpetrators.
"How can it be that they don't catch the perpetrators?" he asked, saying the attacks were "only drawing condemnation" from Israel's leaders but resulting in few arrests.
"Given that the vandals are largely unprosecuted, one must question the priority of the government to get to the bottom of the problem," he said.
Israeli ministers held an emergency meeting on Wednesday, pledging to enforce harsh measures against perpetrators.
"We are encouraged by the fact that Justice Minister Tzipi Livni held an emergency meeting to combat this senseless vandalism," Twal said.
"Hopefully, the issue does not remain solely a matter of sound bites and round table discussion. Until these words become acts, we remain skeptical."
Police and the Shin Bet are reportedly concerned that Jewish extremists could increase attacks on Christian sites ahead of the pope's arrival in an attempt to attract media attention.
"Price tag" attacks within Israel, in addition to attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians and their property in the West Bank, were included in the US State Department's 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism, published April 30.