By DANIEL ESTRIN, Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — Christian leaders in Israel are up in arms over what they say is a string of relentless attacks on church properties and religious sites — most recently the desecration of a historic Protestant cemetery where vandals toppled stone crosses from graves and bludgeoned them to pieces.
The attack in the Protestant Cemetery of Mount Zion, one of Jerusalem's most important historic graveyards, has struck a particularly sensitive nerve because some of the damaged graves belong to famous figures from the 19th and 20th centuries, a key period in Jerusalem's history. Among them are a German diplomat, the founder of an orphanage who was a significant contributor to modernizing the city, and a relative of the owners of a prominent hotel.
Though members of the clergy say interfaith relations between top religious leaders have never been stronger, and police have been more responsive to such attacks in recent years, they say attacks continue unabated. Some activists say not enough is being done to stop them.
"We are striving so hard to promote dignity and respect among the living. And here we have our dead people ... vandalized," said the Very Rev. Hosam Naoum, caretaker of the Protestant cemetery. "No human would agree with this."
Police arrested four young Israeli settlers from the West Bank last week, two of them minors, in connection with the cemetery attack, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. But Rosenfeld said the four were subsequently released without charge until further questioning.
Two of the suspects had been banned from entering the West Bank because of their connections to the "hilltop youth," a movement of young Jewish extremists blamed for a spate of attacks in recent years on mosques, Christian sites and Israeli army property to protest government policy.
The four suspects claimed they had entered the cemetery to immerse themselves in a ritual bath there, according to media reports. Rosenfeld could not immediately confirm the reports, and the record of the court session was sealed because minors were involved.
Naoum said the reported alibi was suspect. An ancient Jewish ritual bath was excavated on the premises but it contains no water, and an old well nearby has a narrow opening and would be dangerous to enter, he said.
Naoum said his staff saw religious Jewish youths breaking into the cemetery again on Tuesday and Wednesday, though no damage was reported. Israeli media have said two of the original suspects were students at a nearby Jewish seminary known for its ultranationalist views.
Naoum said he is reporting the events to the German and British embassies, which have representatives on the cemetery administration board, as well as to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The attack joins a list of high-profile Christian sites that have been vandalized within the past year. They include a Trappist monastery in Latrun, outside Jerusalem, where vandals burned a door and spray-painted "Jesus is a monkey" on the century-old building, a Baptist church in Jerusalem, and other monasteries. Clergymen often speak of being spat at by ultra-Orthodox religious students while walking around Jerusalem's Old City wearing frocks and crosses.
Christian citizens of Israel, including Roman Catholic and Orthodox streams of Christianity, make up less than 2 percent of its nearly 8 million people. About three-quarters of them are Arabs, and the others arrived during a wave of immigration from former Soviet Union countries that began 20 years ago. Tens of thousands of Christian foreign workers and African migrants also live in Israel.
The population figures include Christians in Israel and east Jerusalem, the section of the city captured by Israel in 1967 and claimed by the Palestinians.
Over the past three years, 17 Christian sites in the Holy Land have been reported vandalized, according to Search for Common Ground, a nongovernmental group that monitors press reports of attacks on religious sites.
Researcher Kevin Merkelz said a police detective in charge of Christian affairs told the organization the numbers are actually higher, but Christian leaders chose not to report many attacks to the press.
"The Christians who are still here want to keep a low profile when attacked," said Merkelz. He said the group does not include sites in the politically sensitive Old City of Jerusalem in its survey, because many sites are in dispute and the group does not want to be seen as taking sides.