Israeli police arrested a Jewish man who tried to set fire to a church on the Mount of Olives located in East Jerusalem on Friday.
Though police said simply that the man was a 49 year old, Palestinian and church officials allege the suspect was an Orthodox Jew who wore a head covering similar to those worn by “settlers” — the term for Israelis who live in the West Bank.
“Preliminary investigation and the suspect’s details strengthen the assessment that the background to the incident was criminal,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Catholic News Service reported that in Friday’s attack, some of the benches and part of a Byzantine mosaic were damaged at the Church of All Nations, located at the foot of the Mount of Olives and the edge of the Kidron Valley.
“It was only a scare but now it is all over, and we have forgiven,” Franciscan Father Benito Choque, superior of the Convent of Gethsemane, told Catholic News Service. “We Christians are persecuted all over the world, but we continue to pray and forgive which is a tenet of Christianity. We (Franciscans) are custodians of the holy places. This is not the first attack in our history, and we will continue with our presence.”
Choque — who was present when the attack occurred — said that convent employees subdued the man, then called police.
Over the past 10 years, Jewish extremists have been charged or blamed for a number of attacks on churches and mosques in Israel including a 2015 arson attack that caused extensive damage to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish in the Galilee region of northern Israel.
Wadie Abunassar, a representative of Catholic bishops in the Holy Land, thanked police for “swift action” and arrest of the suspect in this case.
“We demand that they seriously investigate this attack and bring the perpetrator to justice,” he said in a statement adding that the bishops urged government leaders to examine the motives for the attack, “especially since the suspicions indicate that it may be the result of racist motives.”
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch, Theophilos III, described this attempt as “a racist crime that exposes Israeli radical mentality in targeting churches and their properties.”
“This radical act is a crime inspired by an extreme ideology that seeks to drive Christians from the Holy Land,” he said. “I call on the international community to take its role in protecting Christian shrines, and preserving the indigenous Christian presence in the Holy Land.”
The Church of All Nations was built between 1919 to 1924 and stands in the Garden of Gethsemane amid two-millennia-old olive trees. This is believed to be the place where Jesus prayed with his disciples before his arrest and subsequent crucifixion. surround the 20th century church.
“They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples,
‘Sit here while I pray.’” Mark 14:23