The Israeli police arrested an American tourist suspected of vandalizing a statue of Jesus in a Jerusalem church on Thursday morning. The church, located at the Second Station of the Via Dolorosa in the Old City, was the scene of at least the sixth attack on Christians and Christian sites in the Old City since the year began.
Videos of the incident caught on mobile phones blew up on social media this morning after, what appeared to be, an employee of the Church of the Flagellation tackled a man as he began speaking English and quoting scriptures.
In the video, a statue of Jesus is seen on the ground near the suspect who can be heard saying, “Exodus chapter 20 says you can’t have idols in Jerusalem. This is the holy city.”
Dean Elsdunne, international spokesperson for the Israel Police, told ALL ISRAEL NEWS that the investigation was ongoing and could not say whether today’s incident was connected to any previous ones.
“The suspect arrested is an American tourist in his 40s, who vandalized and broke a statue in the church,” police said in a statement. “The suspect was taken to the David precinct police station for questioning and the Israel Police opened an investigation into the circumstances of the case. Concurrently, an evaluation is being held in order to determine suspect’s mental health.”
While the police did not specify the man's religion, the suspect asked for his yarmulke – the Jewish head covering – when he was tackled by the church employee.
The Custodia Terrae Sanctae – the Catholic church's custodians of holy sites, said “this hate crime joins a list of attacks all of which targeted the Christian community in Israel in the past month.”
“It is not a coincidence that the violent dialogue in Israeli society is translated also into these grave acts,” according to the church statement, referring to Israel's recently sworn in right-wing, largely religious government.
The incident comes as tensions in the city are running high. On Saturday, a Jewish man pepper sprayed an Armenian man outside the church in the Armenian Quarter, which led to a confrontation between Armenian Christians and religious Jews who tried to take down an Armenian flag. Eyewitnesses said that the Jewish men ran toward police crying, “terror attack,” which prompted police to draw their weapons.
This was just hours after an actual terror attack took place just outside the Old City that morning and another one in which seven people were killed in Jerusalem just 24 hours prior, leaving residents and law enforcement on edge.
In the ensuing bedlam, one Armenian was knocked to the ground, arrested and is currently serving 20 days under house arrest.
“It is an utter disgrace that Jewish extremists attack Israeli citizens of Armenian descent, just because they are Armenian Christian,” the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem said in a statement. “It is appalling that Jewish extremists dare to think and say that there is no place for Christians in Israel.”
“Israel’s declaration of independence, dated May 14, 1948, stated that the state will 'ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.' Look how far from this commitment it has reached nowadays,” the statement continued.
This occurred just two days after an Armenian restaurant in the Christian Quarter of the Old City was vandalized during a brawl instigated by a large group of religious Jews on Thursday night, causing customers to flee in panic. Videos from the scene went viral, showing dozens of religious Jews throwing tables and chairs. Someone is holding an Israeli flag while another man is holding a bullhorn.
The restaurant, Taboon & Wine, near New Gate, is owned by a Christian couple – one Armenian and one Palestinian – and has been open since 2021. Miran and Dalia Krikorian told us that the mob was cursing Jesus and threatening them during the attack.
This week the Armenian community in Jerusalem has come under multiple attacks by extremist Jews who have attacked Armenian businesses and churches and attacked Armenians on the street. This is unacceptable. Armenians are an important part of Israel and must be protected! pic.twitter.com/IDqrR24Ke0— Emily Schrader - אמילי שריידר امیلی شریدر (@emilykschrader) February 2, 2023
Police spokeswoman Mirit Ben Mayor told ALL ISRAEL NEWS that officers arrived on the scene shortly after the attack began and arrested one Jewish suspect on vandalism and assault charges. The case is under investigation, Ben Mayor said, adding that it was too early to say if this attack would be characterized as a nationally-motivated hate crime.
The same suspects then apparently entered an onslaught of negative reviews of the restaurant on Google, trashing its five-star rating.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, which is situated nearby at New Gate, condemned the attack.
“This unprovoked violence instilled fear in the shopkeepers and residents of the Christian Quarter as well as visitors,” the statement said. “It is only the latest in a series of episodes of religious violence that is affecting the symbols of the Christian community and beyond.”
This series of attacks began on Jan. 1 when two religious Jews broke into and vandalized dozens of gravestones in a Protestant cemetery. Two weeks ago, threatening messages calling for “death to Christians, Armenians and Arabs” were scrawled in marker on the walls outside the Armenian convent.
In other recent incidents, funeral notices were ripped down by Jewish girls passing outside the Armenian convent because they had crosses on them, according to local residents. Last week, a Jewish man was caught urinating at the entrance to the convent and Saint James Cathedral. And two different sets of Jewish men spat at Armenian priests while passing by the same evening.
On a positive note, several Jewish groups have reached out following the attack, offering support to the Christian community, including a solidarity tour of the desecrated cemetery and another of the Armenian Quarter, planned for Friday.
The Old City of Jerusalem, which is less than 1-square kilometer in size, is home to 50,000 residents and welcomes thousands of pilgrims from various religions on a daily basis.
Last week, Chief Inspector of Intelligence in the David Precinct Shmuel Miro said dealing with nationalistic crimes is the No. 1 priority for the precinct, which is responsible for the Old City. Police are currently investigating this string of scuffles, threatening messages, vandalism and rising tensions.
“I can promise you, there is no nationalistic crime that gets swept under the rug. No one is perfect and also not us. A 100%-conviction rate is our goal, but we are doing our best to investigate all the nationalistic crimes – even if someone wrote on a wall with a marker,” Miro told reporters in a briefing last week.
Nicole Jansezian was the news editor and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS.