Catholic official worried about Israel attacks
By Josef Federman, AP, Sep 20, 2012
JERUSALEM (AP)—After a series of attacks by vandals on Christian holy sites in Israel, normally tight-lipped Roman Catholic officials are beginning to speak out, publicly appealing to authorities to take a stronger stand against the violence.
The Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, one of the church’s top officials in the Holy Land, said he is worried about relations between Jews and Christians in the Holy Land. He believes the blame can go all around.
“I think the main atmosphere is ignorance,” Pizzaballa told The Associated Press in an interview.
Because the local Christian population is tiny, “we do not exist for the majority … They have other priorities,” he said. “On the other side, we as a minority maybe didn’t invest enough energy and initiatives” to reach out to Israeli Jews.
That may be changing following this month’s attack on a well-known Trappist Monastery in Latrun, outside Jerusalem. Vandals burned a door and spray-painted anti-Christian graffiti on the century-old building with the words “Jesus is a monkey.” Suspicion has fallen on extremist Jewish West Bank settlers or their supporters, who are believed to be behind a series of attacks in recent years on mosques, Christian sites and even Israeli army property to protest moves against settlements.
In response, the church’s top officials, including Pizzaballa, the “custos,” or custodian of Catholic holy sites, to issue a rare “declaration” calling on Israeli leaders to take action.
“Sadly, what happened in Latrun is only another in a long series of attacks against Christians and their places of worship,” the Catholic leaders said. “What is going on in Israeli society today that permits Christians to be scapegoated and targeted by these acts of violence?”
It said authorities should “put an end to this senseless violence and to ensure a ‘teaching of respect’ in schools for all those who call this land home.”
The monastery was targeted shortly after Israel evacuated an illegally built West Bank settler outpost. In recent months, two other monasteries and a Baptist church were vandalized. It is not clear why the vandals have targeted Christian sites. For years, Christian clergymen also have been spat at by ultra-Orthodox seminary students in Jerusalem’s Old City.
There are about 155,000 Christian citizens of Israel, less than 2 percent of its 7.9 million people. About three-quarters are Arabs, and the others arrived during waves of Russian immigration over the past 20 years. They are split between Catholicism and Orthodox steams of Christianity. Tens of thousands of Christian foreign workers and African migrants also reside in Israel.
Pizzaballa said Israelis have little understanding about modern Christianity or “the reality of the Christians in the country.”
The West Bank has seen its Christian population dwindle over the years to roughly 50,000 people today, less than 3 percent of the population, the result of a lower birthrate and increased emigration in search of a better quality of life. Just one third of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Christ, is Christian today, down from 75 percent half a century ago.