JERUSALEM (OSV News) — The Greek Orthodox Church March 19 denounced what it called a “heinous terrorist attack” on a church at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem.
As reported by Agence France-Presse, Israeli police said that earlier in the day March 19, a 27-year-old resident of southern Israel had been arrested over “a violent incident” at the church in annexed East Jerusalem, without providing further details on the suspect’s identity.
The Greek Orthodox Church said it “denounces the attempt to cause physical harm to Archbishop Joachim, who was leading the service, as well as the attack on one of the priests in the church.”
A statement from the church also called for “international protection of holy sites” in a statement. “Terrorist attacks, by radical Israeli groups, targeting churches, cemeteries and Christian properties … have become almost a daily occurrence that evidently increases in intensity during Christian holidays,” it said.
The incident occurred in the midst of Lenten celebrations and the city being filled with tourists on spiritual pilgrimages across Israel.
Bilal Abu Nab, a vendor who works near the church, told AFP a priest had been injured in the forehead, and police were called but arrived more than half an hour later, AFP reported.
According to the French news agency, without mentioning a second assailant, the police said the suspect who was apprehended had entered the church with an iron bar and no one was reported injured, other than the priest who the vendor said was injured. The suspect is believed to have mental health issues.
“We view violence of any kind with severity and will continue to act against incidents of violence in general and incidents of violence in holy places in particular, with a firm, uncompromising hand in order to bring the perpetrators to justice,” the Israel police said in a statement, as reported by The Times of Israel.
The attack on the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem is one of many attacks on Christian sites in Jerusalem in recent months.
On Feb. 2 Israeli police arrested an American Jewish tourist for vandalizing a statue of Jesus at the Franciscan Church of Flagellation in the Old City.
At the time, Franciscan Custody officials noted that in a period of just over a month, a Christian cemetery in Jerusalem had been vandalized, anti-Christian graffiti scrawled on the walls of an Armenian monastery, and a Christian-owned restaurant attacked by a group of radical settler youth.
There are 230,000 Israelis living in annexed east Jerusalem along with at least 360,000 Palestinians who want to make the sector the capital of their future state.
Israeli-Palestinian violence has worsened this year. Seven Israelis were killed Jan. 27 at a synagogue after prayers, and another shooting the next day left two Israelis injured just outside of the Old City in the Palestinian village of Silwan where Jewish settlers have established themselves and an archaeological site.
The shootings followed days of violence in the West Bank and Gaza, including the killing of nine Palestinians in an Israel raid Jan. 25 in the Jenin refugee camp.
Violence often hit Christian districts as well. The Assembly of the Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land called on political and religious authorities to bring civil and religious life in Jerusalem back to “greater serenity” following a rampage of a radical Jewish gang in the Christian Quarter the evening of Jan. 26.
Although the New Testament does not mention anything relating to the death and burial place of Mary, strong Eastern Christian tradition places her tomb in the dimly lit church in eastern Jerusalem, also called Church of the Sepulchre of St. Mary. It is a popular place among pilgrims in the Holy land and is located at the foot of Mount of Olives.