ROME – After an assault by Israeli settlers on an Armenian restaurant in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem on Thursday, Christian leaders in the Holy Land have condemned the violence, urged greater protection of minority groups and warned of “radical aggression” by forces determined to impose an exclusively “Jewish character” on the city.
On Thursday evening, a group of settlers swarmed the Taboon Wine Barat the New Gate in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem. CCTV footage shows the group carrying banners and throwing chairs violently toward the restaurant and those seated inside.
Israeli police, who arrived an hour after a call had been made, ushered the crowd away but reportedly made no arrests.
The Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, which brings together the leaders of the various Catholic churches in the region, quickly reacted.
“This unprovoked violence instilled fear in the shopkeepers and residents of the Christian quarter as well as visitors,” the bishops said, calling the incident the latest in “a series of episodes of religious violence that is affecting the symbols of the Christian community and beyond.”
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa visited the restaurant owners Friday afternoon, as well as owners of nearby shops whose businesses were also targeted, as a sign of solidarity amid what he said is an increased threat to the Christian presence in Jerusalem.
The Orthodox Jerusalem Patriarchate asserted that “allowing members of such radical groups to freely march and roam around the neighborhoods of Jerusalem while armed and having declared criminal intentions, is considered as complicit in the attack and displays unwelcomed leniency with the criminals.”
In a statement, the patriarchate called for “protection of the unarmed people of Old City from radical aggressors who aim to change the diverse character of the city of Jerusalem and its cultural and religious mosaic, determined to limit it to one character being their radical definition and depiction of what a Jewish character should be.”
The patriarchate also asserted its right to take legal action to prevent future marches by radical forces.
The settlers reportedly cursed Islamic prophet Mohammed and shouted ‘Death to Arabs’ near the area’s Bab Al-Amoud Plaza, harassing Palestinian youth. In another act of violence in Jerusalem, at least seven people were killed and three injured when a gunman opened fire at a synagogue in East Jerusalem Friday night.
Jewish worshippers had gathered for prayers at the start of their sabbath celebrations at a synagogue in the Neve Yaakov neighborhood and were leaving when the gunman began shooting. Police, who shot the attacker dead, described him as a “terrorist” and said the incident was one of the worst attacks in recent years.
The incident coincided with Holocaust Memorial Day, which commemorates the roughly six million Jews and others killed as part of the German Nazi Holocaust during the Second World War. The day is observed at an international level.
Pope Francis on Twitter said, “The memory of the extermination of millions of Jewish people and people of other faiths must neither be forgotten nor denied. There can be no fraternity without first dispelling the roots of hatred and violence that fueled the horror of the Holocaust.”
Leaders from around the world sent messages of solidarity after Friday’s synagogue attack, including United States President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the site late Friday along with his controversial far-right National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has been accused of discrimination against Christians and of inciting violence against the Christian community.
Ben-Gvir, head of Israel’s far right Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) party, has been criticized by Christians for his past defense of Bentzi Gopstein, leader of the radical anti-assimilation group Lehava, who, according to the Jerusalem Post, has led violent protests against both Christian and Messianic events, and who once said Israel should expel its entire Christian population.
A lawyer, Ben-Gvir in 2015 also defended a man convicted of arson for setting fire to the Roman Catholic Church of Loaves and Fishes, called the “Church of the Multiplication,” at Tabgha, along the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Last year, as Netanyahu was still forming his coalition following his election victory, a chorus of voices including several prominent Christian leaders voiced concern about Ben-Gvir’s past actions and warned that the new government, Israel’s most rightwing government to date, could lead to an uptick in nationalist radical activity.
Already in December the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem in their annual Christmas message warned that Christians in the Holy Land, who are mostly of Arab descent, “have increasingly faced assaults on their free exercise of religion.”
The increase in attacks against people, cemeteries, and places of worship, they said, had fostered a “disheartening atmosphere” that has led to “a lack of hope, especially among our Christian youth, who increasingly feel unwelcome in the land where their ancestors have dwelt since even before the birth of the Church on Pentecost.”
In their statement, published before Friday’s synagogue attack, the Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land condemned Thursday’s attack on the Christian community and voiced concern “for the escalation of violence in the Holy City.”
The incident at the Armenian restaurant, they said, “happened in the street which leads to the Holy Sepulcher, the most sacred Christian place in the world, and in the Christian Quarter which hosts many monasteries and churches.”
“It is a priority that the political and religious authorities work according to their own responsibility to bring the civil and religious life of the city back to greater serenity,” they said, insisting that Jerusalem “must remain the homeland of believers of all faiths and not hostage to radical groups.”
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