JERUSALEM -- More than 30 graves at a historic Christian cemetery in Jerusalem were found toppled and vandalized, the diocese said Wednesday, jolting the Christian minority in the contested city.
Israel's Foreign Ministry called the attack an “immoral act” and “an affront to religion." Jerusalem’s Anglican Archbishop Hosam Naoum called it a “clear hate crime.” The British consulate said it was just the latest in a string of assaults on the Christian community in the holy city of Jerusalem.
Police officers were sent to the Protestant Cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion to investigate the profanation. Mount Zion, associated in Christian tradition with the site of the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his crucifixion, is also sacred to Jews and Muslims and has been at the center of competing religious claims throughout the decadeslong Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Widely shared security camera footage on Sunday showed two young men — both wearing a Jewish skullcap and tzitzit, the knotted ritual fringes worn by observant Jews — breaking into the cemetery, knocking over stone crosses and smashing and stomping on tombstones, leaving a trail of debris and broken headstones.
Among the destroyed tombs was one containing a 19th century bust of Samuel Gobat, the second Protestant Bishop in Jerusalem who died in 1879, the Episcopal diocese said. The graves of three police officers, British citizens serving in the police force of what was then British-ruled Palestine, were also vandalized.
The diocese cautioned that the desecration of the cemetery should be seen as an ominous warning about "hatred against Christians."
“Many stone crosses were the targets of the vandals, clearly indicating that these criminal acts were motivated by religious bigotry,” it said, urging authorities to redouble efforts to find the perpetrators.
The Protestant Cemetery on the venerated Mount Zion just outside Jerusalem's Old City walls was established in 1848 and was part of territory that Israel seized in the 1967 Mideast war. The cemetery houses the graves of dozens of Palestinian police officers killed during the First and Second World Wars as well as Christian leaders who died in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Jewish extremists have defaced church property on Mount Zion in the past years. Jews consider Mount Zion the traditional burial place of the biblical King David and some ultra-Orthodox and nationalist activists have opposed Christian prayer rights at the site. A Jewish seminary known as the Diaspora Yeshiva has taken over many buildings in the Mount Zion compound.
Some 16,000 Christians live in Jerusalem, the majority of whom are Palestinian. Israel claims Jerusalem as its eternal capital, while Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital for their hoped-for independent state.
This story has been clarified to show the three police officers whose graves were also vandalized were British citizens in the police force of what was then British-ruled Palestine.