Visiting the Shrine of Our Lady at Deir Rafat on Tuesday, Patriarch Fouad Twal denounced the vandalism carried out the previous night: “We condemn these attacks in the strongest terms.”
He added: “Such acts are bad for us Christians, but also for Israel. I don’t believe this is a proper way to receive the Holy Father here next month. But they are also bad for those who do such things.”
During the night of 31st March – 1st April, graffiti in Hebrew was sprayed on the outer walls of the shrine to Our Lady Queen of Palestine.
In addition to references to Jesus and Mary, some of the graffiti compared the US to Nazi Germany, which has been seen as a criticism of the current peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, which began as the result of American mediation.
The graffiti is thought to have been carried out by members of the “price tag” movement, young Israeli extremists who target individuals and institutions who they think oppose – or even fail to give their full backing to – the Jewish settlement of the Palestinian Territories.
Patriarch Twal said: “I hope the Israeli authorities apprehend the perpetrators and hold them to account” – Israeli police started an investigation on Tuesday – “At the same time, this will not be enough."
“The main thing is to institute a new kind of education imbued with greater openness and respect towards others," the patriarch said.
He added: “We feel sorry for the young people who carried them out. At the same time, we ask ourselves what’s behind it. At what school do they learn such a mind-set?”
Speaking to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Patriarch Twal said he could not explain why Christian institutions have again been targeted over the past few years: “We should ask the people who are behind them. This [monastery] is where cloistered Sisters pray for peace in the Holy Land. They are completely apolitical.
“I came here to encourage the Sisters to have no fear. I will also ask them to pray for the perpetrators. I think these people are sick.”
The “price tag” movement has targeted Christian institutions to draw media attention to their political goals.
Patriarch Twal complained about such attacks in his 2013 Christmas message: “We realised that in our diocese this year, there has been an increase in acts of vandalism carried out by extremists that affected some 20 holy places or places of worship.”
Among attacks on Christian institutions over the past few years, Christian cemeteries in Jerusalem have been vandalised and the door to the Trappist Abbey of Latroun, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, was set ablaze.
The Israeli state has repeatedly condemned these acts.
The shrine at Deir Rafat is the central Marian shrine in the Holy Land.
Established in 1927 by Patriarch Luigi Barlassina, the Mother of God is invoked here as ‘Queen of Palestine’, a traditional devotion pre-dating the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS);www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)