Death threats to Arabs and Christians written in front of a Roman Catholic Church office in Jerusalem ahead of Pope Francis' visit later this month have some officials alarmed, though a Christian persecution watchdog group said it is unlikely a direct attack on the pope will be attempted.
The Office of the Assembly of Bishops, Notre Dame of Jerusalem said that it found Hebrew writing on a column outside its building earlier this week, reading "Death to Arabs, Christians and all those who hate Israel." Heads of churches are preparing to respond.
Todd Daniels, International Christian Concern's regional manager for the Middle East, told The Christian Post in an email on Thursday that such threats and attacks are often carried out by Jewish extremists, and that Israeli security forces are taking the threat seriously.
"Ahead of the Pope's visit to the area they are implementing procedures to avoid a serious incident. It is unlikely that there would be a direct assault directed at Pope Francis, but the possibility of the heightened attention may be seen as an opportunity for a notable attack to draw attention to perceived injustices," Daniels told CP.
The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem called the threat "explicit and serious" and noted that it comes two weeks before the Vatican leader's visit to the Holy Land and Jerusalem.
"The Bishops are very concerned about the lack of security and lack of responsiveness from the political sector, and fear an escalation of violence. There has been terror for some time, beginning with graffiti, then moved on to drilling holes in the tires of cars, various acts of vandalism and looting of properties or Christian symbols. Given the absence or weakness of prosecution, vandals have now come with personal threats," it added.
Francis announced on Jan. 5 that he will be making a pilgrimage to Israel from May 24-26, and explained that the main purpose of the visit is to commemorate the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras 50 years ago.
The Catholic leader is expected to meet with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, considered "first among equals" of the Orthodox bishops, as well as Jordan's King Abdullah and Queen Rania, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres and separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
There have been continuous reports of "price tagging" – which refers to far-right Jews seeking to make the government "pay" for curbs to Israeli settlements – in Jerusalem over the past few years.
Daniels identified religious extremism as one of the primary causes for violence across the Middle East.
"When ethnic, religious, and political identities all overlap the situation becomes even more volatile. There has been an uptick in the number of incidents of 'price tag' attacks of graffiti and vandalism targeting both Christian and Muslim sites in Israeli controlled areas. The increase of these attacks, largely carried out by Jewish extremists does pose a potential security threat," he said.
He added that even though Arab Christians face real hostility, "it does not begin to approach the level of persecution currently being faced by the Christian population in neighboring Syria, Egypt, or Iraq."