JERUSALEM (AP) — After a series of attacks by vandals on Christian holy sites in Israel, normally tight-lipped Roman Catholic officials are beginning to speak out, publicly appealing to authorities to take a stronger stand against the violence.
The Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, one of the church's top officials in the Holy Land, said he is worried about relations between Jews and Christians in the Holy Land. He believes the blame can go all around.
"I think the main atmosphere is ignorance," Pizzaballa told The Associated Press in an interview.
Because the local Christian population is tiny, "we do not exist for the majority ... They have other priorities," he said. "On the other side, we as a minority maybe didn't invest enough energy and initiatives" to reach out to Israeli Jews.
That may be changing following this month's attack on a well-known Trappist Monastery in Latrun, outside Jerusalem. Vandals burned a door and spray-painted anti-Christian graffiti on the century-old building with the words "Jesus is a monkey." Suspicion has fallen on extremist Jewish West Bank settlers or their supporters, who are believed to be behind a series of attacks in recent years on mosques, Christian sites and even Israeli army property to protest moves against settlements.
In response, the church's top officials, including Pizzaballa, the "custos," or custodian of Catholic holy sites, to issue a rare "declaration" calling on Israeli leaders to take action.
"Sadly, what happened in Latrun is only another in a long series of attacks against Christians and their places of worship," the Catholic leaders said. "What is going on in Israeli society today that permits Christians to be scapegoated and targeted by these acts of violence?"
It said authorities should "put an end to this senseless violence and to ensure a 'teaching of respect' in schools for all those who call this land home."
Israeli leaders swiftly condemned the attack, and police vowed to bring the vandals to justice. Nearly two weeks later, there have been no arrests.
The monastery was targeted shortly after Israel evacuated an illegally built West Bank settler outpost. In recent months, two other monasteries and a Baptist church were vandalized. It is not clear why the vandals have targeted Christian sites. For years, Christian clergymen also have been spat at by ultra-Orthodox seminary students in Jerusalem's Old City.
There are about 155,000 Christian citizens of Israel, less than 2 percent of its 7.9 million people. About three-quarters are Arabs, and the others arrived during waves of Russian immigration over the past 20 years. They are split between Catholicism and Orthodox steams of Christianity. Tens of thousands of Christian foreign workers and African migrants also reside in Israel.
Pizzaballa said he recognizes the attacks do not reflect the views of most Israelis, and he welcomed the condemnations by Israeli police, politicians and mainstream rabbinical authorities.
But he said Israel must do more.
"It's important not just to condemn, but also to work, to take initiatives to stop this phenomenon," he said.
Far "more serious," he said, was an incident in July in which an Israeli lawmaker ripped up a copy of the New Testament in front of TV cameras after Chrisitan missionaries mailed him the book. The lawmaker, Michael Ben-Ari, is now the subject of an ethics probe in parliament.
"This is a member of the Knesset. He is a representative of Israeli institutions," Pizzaballa said.
Even if the delivery of the book was a "provocation," he said, "you cannot rip the New Testament in front of the cameras and throw it in the trash and ask that the New Testament be banned from the country. This is unacceptable for every Christian believer."
He pointed to the recent uproar in the Muslim world over a movie that mocked the Prophet Muhammad as an example of how explosive and hurtful religious hatred can be.
Pizzaballa's words carry extra weight because of his strong ties with Israel. Pizzaballa, 47, has lived in the country for two decades, speaks Hebrew and has been a faculty member at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is scheduled to complete his term as custos next year.
Jews and Catholics have had a fraught relationship over the centuries. It was only in 1965 that the Vatican rejected the long-held charge that the Jewish people were responsible for killing Jesus. The actions of Pope Pius XII during World War II still remain a sensitive diplomatic issue between Israel and the Vatican. Critics have long contended that Pius could have done more to stop the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. The Vatican says Pius used quiet diplomacy to save Jews.
Israel and the Vatican have made inroads in recent years. The late Pope John Paul II established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1994, and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, has promoted interfaith dialogue.
Pizzaballa acknowledged the difficult past but said Israelis have little understanding about modern Christianity or "the reality of the Christians in the country."
While Christianity was born in the Holy Land, Christians' situation here is fragile. In Israel, the number of Christian citizens has remained about the same for 20 years, with the influx of Russian immigrants balancing out some emigration by Arab Christians.
The West Bank has seen its Christian population dwindle over the years to roughly 50,000 people today, less than 3 percent of the population, the result of a lower birthrate and increased emigration in search of a better quality of life. Just one third of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Christ, is Christian today, down from 75 percent half a century ago.
In the Gaza Strip, ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, the situation is even more precarious.
Fewer than 3,000 Christians live among 1.7 million Muslim residents, and their numbers have rapidly shrunk in recent years because of turmoil in the territory.
A Christian activist — who ran Gaza's only Christian bookstore — was stabbed to death after Hamas took power in 2007. The killer was never found. In recent years, several Christian institutions were attacked by suspected Muslim hardliners. In at least two cases, including the torching of the local YMCA, assailants were caught and sentenced to prison.
Pizzaballa said Hamas has ensured that local Christians can worship freely, but nonetheless the environment is uncomfortable.
"You feel the pressure in the society and the life of the Islamic regime," he said.