AMMAN: Palestinians on Friday thwarted an arson attack on an East Jerusalem church by putting out the fire and capturing the perpetrator, reported to be a Jewish settler.
The incident took place at Gethsemane Church. It is close to the Gardens of Gethsemane, which has great symbolism in Christianity as Jesus is thought to have prayed there before he was arrested.
Wafa News Agency quoted eyewitness Hamza Ajjaj, who described what he saw. “We saw the church guard following a religious Jewish guy who seems to have taken advantage of the COVID-19 restrictions and tried to burn the church’s wooden benches," the agency reported him saying. Four local Palestinians followed him and stopped him while others put out the fire. Police later arrived and took the suspect away.
Bishop William Shomali of the Latin Patriarchate in Jordan condemned the incident.
“For a radical Jewish person to try and burn a church that is close to the hearts of all Christians is painful and disgusting,” he told Arab News. “This criminal act is happening at the time of the inauguration of our new patriarch. This is hurtful to all those who work on reconciliation between people and religions.”
Ramzi Khoury, who heads the Higher Presidential Committee of Churches Affairs in Palestine, said the attack was part of a series of actions aimed at changing the holy city’s character.
“We have seen attempts in various forms in this direction including the attempts to overtake the hotels in Jaffa gate, the daily harassment at Al-Aqsa Mosque (and) at other locations,” he told Arab News.
Wadie Abu Nassar, who is a special advisor to the Catholic Council, was worried by the incident and hoped for an investigation. If the motive was racism then “many conclusions should be reached” in terms of what was being done to educate Israelis in the areas of mutual respect, he told Arab News.
Wasfi Kailani, the executive director of the Hashemite Fund for the restoration of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, said there had been more than 45 such crimes against religious sites between 2000 and 2018. “This is part of a campaign that rejects everything that is not Jewish. In all these attacks against religious institutions, no one has been held responsible for these despicable acts.”
Vera Baboun, former mayor of Bethlehem and a member of the Palestinian National Council, called the attempt to set fire to the church a reminder of the “historic event of the treason, hatred, and oppression, and tyranny” that took place in the same location where Jesus prayed on the day of his arrest and crucifixion. This kind of "hatred and enmity" was the source of the oppressive occupational acts that Palestinians were suffering from, Baboun added.
Orthodox Bishop Atallah Hanna said that the arson attempt was a dangerous sign that reflected institutional racism. “Jerusalem is a holy city to the three monotheistic religions, but unfortunately there are those who are refuse to recognize its uniqueness and the fact that all holy places whether Christian or Muslim should be protected from attack,” he told Arab News.
The bishop said that, no matter what happened, “we are here to stay in Jerusalem.”