JERUSALEM, (OSV News) — Following a rampage of a radical Jewish gang in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City on the evening of Jan. 26, the Assembly of the Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land called on political and religious authorities to bring civil and religious life in Jerusalem back to “greater serenity.
“This is only the latest in a series of episodes of religious violence that is affecting the symbols of the Christian community and beyond,” they said in their Jan. 27 statement. “We condemn such attacks and express our concern for the escalation of violence in the Holy City.”
The incident took place as Jerusalem spiraled into a weekend of violence when seven Israelis were killed on Jan. 27 at a synagogue after prayers and another shooting the next day left two Israelis injured just outside of the Old City in the Palestinian village of Silwan. This village is where Jewish settlers have established themselves and an archaeological site.
The shootings followed days of violence in the West Bank and Gaza, including the killing of nine Palestinians in an Israel raid on Jan. 25 in the Jenin refugee camp. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said the raid was needed to foil an imminent terrorist attack and all those killed were part of an Islamic Jihad Terror cell. However, Palestinians say civilians also were killed in the attack.
The incident in the Christian Quarter took place around 10:30 p.m. when a large group of supporters of extremist settler leader Baruch Marzel, who has been banned from running for political office due to incitement, attempted to enter Jerusalem’s Old City through the Damascus Gate into the Muslim Quarter.
The police prevented them from entering and they marched instead up to the New Gate, where they encountered the last few diners sitting at tables outside of the popular Armenian Taboun and Wine by Rewind Restaurant.
“We had tourists, Arabs and Jewish Israelis sitting outside dining when the group started chanting ‘death to the Arabs, ‘death to Christians,’ ‘Christians go back to Europe’ and insulting Muhammad and Jesus. Our employees told them to leave and then (the group) started throwing chairs,” said co-owner Miran Krikorian, who was at home nearby when the violence began and called the police as he rushed to the scene.
“When our manager called me I could hear chairs and glass breaking. They were three people confronting a group of 30 or 40 people.”
He said most of the rioters were young teens around 15 or 16 years old, including a young radical who is known to post inciteful videos on social media.
He said the attack continued for several minutes until the police arrived on the scene and pushed back the mob, detaining one of the rioters. He was told to file a complaint so he would not be released.
“We had (Jewish) Israeli customers who were here, and they apologized to us a million times for what happened. They said it was the first time they had seen such rioting with their own eyes. They didn’t realize such things were happening in Jerusalem,” he said.
Once just a road with small kiosks entering into the old city, the New Gate area has become a popular spot with both tourists and locals — Palestinians and Jewish Israelis — with trendy eateries and a French bakery luring people to the area during the day as well as the evening. The Francisican St. Saviour Monastery and the La Salle Collège des Frères are both located at the New Gate.
Krikorian said anti-Christian attacks in Jerusalem have increased in the time that Israel’s new hard-right government has been installed, with Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has been convicted for incitement to racism, serving in the newly created, and controversial, position of Minister of National Security, giving him broad powers over security issues.
Over the past three weeks, extremists have vandalized the Anglican cemetery on Mt. Zion, anti-Christian and anti-Arab graffiti was scrawled on the wall of the Armenian convent in the Armenian Quarter, and an Armenian priest was attacked.
‘We are a restaurant, and I don’t want to politicize the place, but this is something that has been going on for a while,” said Krikorian. “It is a way of intimidation. These are people who provoke. I live right next to the Jewish Quarter door-to-door with Jewish neighbors, and we have very good relations with them. The people who did this are not from here, they have come here specifically to provoke things.”
Among those who came to give support to the restaurant and strategize on Friday was Fadi Suidan, director of the Jerusalem International YMCA, who said the election of the hard-right government that includes two extremist political parties was a “carte blanche” for radical elements to increase their incitement.
“We see what is happening,” he said.
Lawyers of the Society of St. Yves Catholic human rights organization that works under the patronage of the Latin Patriarchate said the case is part of a pattern of systematic settler violence that they have begun to oppose by legal means.
“Of course (increasing violence) is a concern,” said director Raffoul Rofa, who said they would be following up on the case to make sure it is not pushed to the side. “There needs to be more follow up on the attacks. No one likes to be attacked no matter their religion. These attacks should be taken more seriously. It is an unfortunate matter.”
Emphasizing the importance of Jerusalem to all Abrahamic faiths, the Assembly of the Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land said the city “must remain the homeland of believers of all faiths and not hostage to radical groups.”