President Reuven Rivlin expressed outrage Thursday after a Greek Orthodox seminary on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion was set on fire and daubed with anti-Christian graffiti overnight Wednesday, in what is being investigated as a hate crime.
According to police, a bathroom and corridor in the Dormition Abbey compound of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, opposite Zion Gate, were set on fire by unidentified vandals who entered through a window at approximately 3 a.m.
After firefighters put out the blaze, a nearby wall was found covered with crude Hebrew graffiti disparaging Jesus, police said.
Although a spokesman said few details of the investigation could be disclosed due to a court-issued gag order, during an interview with Army Radio, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Aristarchos said two suspects were spotted in the compound.
“Two people who were hiding their faces came from the east side of the structure near the cemetery and the Catholic church,” he said. “From there they threw flammable liquid at the seminary’s bathroom.”
Aristarchos added that, on at least one occasion, ultra-Orthodox Jews had threatened members of the seminary.
“Once religious Jewish people with side-locks came and issued threats,” he said. “Perhaps the police will know if this is connected to them.”
Noting that students live at the seminary, Aristarchos said the damage could have been far worse.
“Luckily a great deal more damage was not caused,” he said. “This is a saddening incident, and luckily nobody was hurt.
Although police said the fire did not cause serious damage, the crime has rattled the church and drew swift condemnation from Israeli politicians and religious leaders.
Upon learning of the attack, Rivlin called Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem to express his outrage and shock, and to assure him that the perpetrators would be brought to justice, the president’s office said.
“It is inconceivable that an act like this could happen in a house of prayer,” Rivlin said.
“This is a heinous crime; there must be an investigation and those responsible must be brought to justice. Such criminals not only threaten to set fire to places of worship holy to all of us, but ignite the regional powder keg upon which we all sit.”
The president added that protecting the holy sites for all religions is imperative to maintain the sanctity of Jerusalem.
“The protection and conservation of the holy sites, both those holy for us and those holy for others, is our obligation as a state and as a society, and we cannot allow such attacks to sabotage the common fabric of our lives here,” he told Theophilos.
“We all have a responsibility to put an end to these terrible acts,” Rivlin continued.
During the call, Theophilos thanked Rivlin for his reassurance, and spoke of the importance of tolerance. “Our mission is to act to bring an end to such acts, in all areas of the Land of Israel,” he said.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, also denounced the attack on Thursday, calling on Christians and Jews to unite to fight religious persecution.
“As an Orthodox rabbi who has dedicated his life to building bridges between the Christian world and Israel, I condemn these hostilities against Christian places of worship and study in Israel,” he said.
“At a time when Christians around the world are being persecuted by radical extremists, it is essential that we do all we can to fight such prejudice and racism, especially when it erupts in our own society.”
Echoing Rivlin’s sentiments, Eckstein continued: “Christians and Jews must come together to condemn such incidents and work together to fight the persecution of Christians and Jews alike.”
Meanwhile, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat issued a statement saying he is working closely with police to expedite the criminal investigation.
“There is no room for such deplorable activity in Jerusalem.
We must eradicate this behavior and bring those responsible to justice,” he said. “We must quickly restore the peace and coexistence in Jerusalem.”
The attack comes one day after police said a mosque in the West Bank village of Jab’a was likely set on fire by right-wing extremists.
The PA Foreign Ministry said that Wednesday’s arson was part of an “onslaught against mosques and Islamic and Christian holy sites.”