Attack on priest in Jerusalem brings intolerance of Christians back into focus
Father Nikodemus Schnabel, abbot of the Benedictine Basilica of the Dormition in Jerusalem, speaks during an ecumenical prayer service that took place at the Cenacle on Jan. 25, 2024. | Credit: Marinella Bandini
Violence against Christians in Jerusalem continues to make the news following an incident on Feb. 3 when Father Nikodemus Schnabel, the abbot of the Benedictine Abbey of the Dormition, was attacked by two young Jewish nationalists.
The incident occurred near the Zion Gate on the border between the Armenian and Jewish quarters. A minor and an individual approximately 20 years old spat on the priest and verbally attacked him, shouting insults against Jesus.
The scene was captured live by German journalist Natalie Amiri, who was filming videos with Schnabel at the time of the assault.
“Normally, I am used to the fact that people spit on me — this is a very daily experience, especially at Mount Zion [where the Dormition Abbey is located],” Schnabel told CNA a few days after the incident. The abbey is located in a Jewish neighborhood with a significant presence of religious schools (yeshivas) and ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredi), who do not tolerate the presence of Christians.
The monks of the Dormition are often under attack. In late December, the inscription “Christian missionaries are worse than Hamas” appeared on the wall of the Orthodox cemetery in front of the abbey. Frequently, during the night, the monastery is targeted with stones.
“I have no hate,” Schnabel said. “I prayed for the two guys who harassed me as I always pray for the perpetrators. This is the DNA of my being as a Christian.”
The two perpetrators have been sentenced to house arrest.
The Benedictine said he wonders “what’s wrong with these people, that they cannot accept that Jerusalem is a multicultural, multireligious, multiethnic city, holy for all Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike? What are they taught in their yeshivot (religious schools), in their synagogues? I think there’s a lack of good religious education,” he said.
“I ask the Israeli government and religious leaders in Israel who are really aware of this phenomenon,” Schnabel said. “As a Christian, I’m very aware of the rising problem of antisemitism and I really ask that also in Israel it would be accepted and recognized that there’s a problem which is called Christian hate from the Jewish side.”
These attacks occur in other hot spots in the city such as the Armenian quarter and the Via Dolorosa, where the streets of Jewish and Christian neighborhoods intersect. The incidents happen more often than the public and the media know because it is not always possible to document them, and many clergy, religious people — but also foreigners and Christian faithful — are not as likely to report them.
Hana Bendcowsky is program director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (JCJCR), part of the Rossing Center for Education and Dialogue. She has been working for over 20 years as an expert on Christian communities in Israel and Jewish-Christian relations in the Israeli context.
“The phenomenon of the harassment of Christians in the Holy Land is not something new,” Bendcowsky explained to CNA. “The history of Jewish-Christian relations used to be very complicated, very painful. And even if the state of Israel allows freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, these hard feelings are still there and at certain times resurface strongly.”
The Rossing Center has recently launched a monitoring program for these incidents, noting an increase in cases in the last couple of years. There are dozens of confirmed cases with evidence supporting them. The episodes range from harassment such as insults and spitting to outright acts of violence toward Church property, the desecration of cemeteries, and physical threats.
“The whole society’s getting more polarized in the last few years and the religious society is getting more polarized as well,” Bendcowsky told CNA. “These kinds of people entered the Parliament and the government and the impression is that now there is more legitimacy to these behaviors.”
Bendcowsky explained that the attackers “are usually men, mainly teenagers to late 20s. All of them come from a religious background: either from the ultra-Orthodox world or from an ultra-nationalist and religious movement, which is a more extreme version of the traditional national religious society.” Some attacks are conducted by a group known as the Hilltop Youth — an extremist religious-nationalist settler youth movement.
In recent months, the phenomenon of assaults against Christians has ramped up and been reported by national and international press. The peak occurred just before the outbreak of war and then disappeared from public attention. Over the last few months there have been fewer people in the Old City, fewer opportunities for encounters, and fewer individuals documenting incidents. The case of Father Schnabel has brought the issue back into focus.
“Education is the key,” Bendcowsky said, echoing Schnabel’s view on how to address it. “We need to go through an educational process in order to change the mentality. If the majority of people publicly condemn these actions, gradually an atmosphere of delegitimization can be created. Perhaps individuals will think twice before spitting or making offensive remarks. It is essential to promote the idea in the country that these are unacceptable behaviors.”
Born and raised in Italy, Marinella Bandini has been a professional journalist since 2008. She works for several news agencies and online newspapers in the Catholic space. Currently based in Jerusalem, she collaborates with the Custody of the Holy Land.
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