BEIRUT

Middle East

Papal visit puts Israel on alert over vandals

Pope Francis delivers his blessing during the Angelus noon prayer he celebrated from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's square, at the Vatican, Sunday, May 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel’s top police officer vowed Sunday that Jewish extremists would not be allowed to spoil the upcoming visit of Pope Francis by vandalizing holy Christian sites.

Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem, Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino said a group of “extreme elements” were attempting “to create pressure and the impression of pressure” ahead of the pontiff’s visit, which begins on May 25.

“There have been attempts here – principally as we get closer to the visit itself – by some extremists to try and make a provocation, and create a bad atmosphere before the visit,” he said. “We have absolutely no intention of tolerating this.”

Israel has been struggling to contain a wave of so-called price-tag hate crimes by Jewish extremists targeting Palestinian property, which has included an increase in vandalism targeting mosques and churches.

Although police have made scores of arrests, there have been no successful prosecutions, prompting widespread expressions of concern from Christian leaders. 

“We will do everything to ensure they won’t harm Christian holy places … and to ensure the trip goes successfully,” Danino said.

He said there had been “no concrete information” about threats to the papal pilgrimage but that police were “not taking any chances.”

Meanwhile, Palestinian organizers said Sunday that they had finished their preparations for the pope’s visit to Bethlehem.

“We have completed all the preparations for this historical visit, that will send a message of love, peace and interfaith dialogue,” said Hanna Amirah, a senior official tasked with organizing the visit.

Last week, Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal, head of the Roman Catholic church in the Holy Land, warned that hate crimes targeting Muslims and Christians were poisoning the atmosphere ahead of the pope’s visit, with church officials “very concerned” about the lack of security. 

But papal Nuncio Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto played down concerns that the visit could be spoiled by a handful of extremists, saying there was a “very limited” number of them.

“We know that this happens but we should not over-estimate them, or give them more importance than they have, because we know that the majority of the Israeli people are happy that the Holy Father is coming,” he told reporters.

He said Pope Francis was coming to bring a powerful message about coexistence without fear.

“The purpose of his visit is to encourage us not to be afraid of each other and to talk to each other and live together peacefully,” he said. 

“He doesn’t want to use an armored car … because he says that it would be a very bad message for the people: ‘I need an armored car because I am afraid of you. The pope is not afraid of anyone. He comes to preach, to announce and ask for peace, understanding and collaboration, living together peacefully.”

The pope will begin his trip in Jordan on May 24, travelling to the West Bank town of Bethlehem the next morning. Later that day, he will go to Jerusalem, where he will stay until the evening of May 26. 

His brief stay was being treated by Israeli police with the same level of importance as the 2012 visit of U.S. President Barack Obama, the police commissioner said.

“You cannot exaggerate the importance of this visit on both a national and an international level,” he told reporters, saying an extra 8,000 police officers would be deployed throughout Jerusalem for the duration of the visit.

“It is the first official visit outside the Vatican and he chose it to be here in Israel, and we will do everything to make it a success,” he said.

 

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