"Price Tag" aggression against Christian clergy and desecration of Christian holy sites will not be tolerated by the authorities of the State of Israel, President Shimon Peres and Interior Minister Gideon Saar told spiritual and lay leaders of Christian communities on Monday.
Peres and Saar were unanimous in their condemnation of acts of sacrilege and each gave assurance of continued freedom of worship and access to all sites holy to Christendom.
Saar said that he hoped that the criminals responsible for such despicable acts would be soon be brought to justice.
The two were speaking at the traditional New Year reception hosted for decades by presidents of Israel to mark the end of one Gregorian calendar year and the beginning of another between the Christmas festivals of the Latin and Eastern Churches.
The spirit of harmony and goodwill that pervades the season was obvious as representatives of the various Christian denominations – some of them in black, brown or white cassocks, and women in nun’s habits – embraced each other with genuine affection.
Also speaking on behalf of heads of Churches and other religious leaders was His Beatitude Theophilos III, the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem who expressed appreciation to Peres “for the determined and strong voice” that he has raised in condemning the wave of "price tag" crimes throughout Israel and particularly in Jerusalem.
“All such acts are abhorrent, whatever their target, and undermine the efforts of all those in our country who are working for reconciliation and peace,” said Theophilos.
“Those intolerable deeds that are directed against Holy Sites and cemeteries are not only intolerable deeds of desecration,” he continued, “they are unworthy of our contemporary, technologically advanced society that seeks to be built on the principles of mutual respect, freedom of worship and peaceful coexistence.”
While appreciative of the complexity of managing large numbers of people in small spaces, and commending the police and other security authorities for what they do in this respect, Theophilos was of the opinion that in order to avoid repetition of the mistakes of bitter experience, more could be done to facilitate access to Holy Places for pilgrims who come from abroad as well as those from local communities.
Pilgrimages by their nature are the best means for building bridges and eradicating prejudices, he said.
“Holy Places are neither tourist attractions nor archaeological wonders," he said. "They are first and foremost the physical expressions of the divine-human encounter and the marks of our sacred history, and so they are always primarily places of worship that gather people together in the same purpose. Our common task as religious and civic leaders is to maintain this true character of our Holy Sites so that we may drink deeply of their spiritual waters."
Theophilos called on everyone present to rededicate themselves to the fundamental principles of mutual respects, peaceful co-existence and the equal care of all their people, “that the light of this Holy Land may shine brightly in a dark world and give hope and life to all.”
Peres, at the outset of his address, said that he believed that everyone present had come to pray together, because today there is so much need for prayer to promote the spirit of hope.
He lamented that so much blood was being shed – “not the blood that comes with birth but the blood that comes with death.”
Peres confessed that he was not quite as optimistic as he generally is, but nonetheless did not think that the present situation would last for long.
He charged terrorists with being responsible for the ongoing turmoil and unrest in the region, the shortage of bread and the lack of security. Terrorists, fanatics and killers cannot provide bread for their children and are doing a great deal of damage to their own people, he said.
“No one damaged life in the Middle East more than terrorists. They may aim at their enemies but they bring tragedy to their friends,” said Peres, citing terrorist activity in Africa, Russia, Egypt, and Syria.
Referring particularly to Syrian refugees, but also to others, Peres said that more people are seeking to escape the ugliness of terror and death and hope to bring food to their children.
Whatever anyone’s faith, he said, “we have to raise the spirit.” The ongoing conflict in Syria, said Peres, is a reminder of the impact of tyranny.
Looking out at his largely clerical audience, Peres said that he saw no contradiction between faith and science.
“They are not contradictory, but complementary,” he said. The need to pray, as far as he could tell, was almost parallel with the dynamism of scientific development. Many people who had almost forgotten how to pray are coming back, he said, noting that in his travels, he had seen this amongst Christians, Moslems and Jews, and had also observed that “Communist countries are coming back to religion.”
He lamented the harassment and persecution of Christians in certain countries, and declared that in Israel they are more united than divided. He hoped that the harmony and coexistence that prevails in the Holy City will be an inspiration to all, and urged all present as leaders of their respective faiths to build bridges of peace and harmony.
With regard to the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Peres contended that if the outcome is successful it will not only change the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians but also between the Arab world and Israel and the Arab world and the Jews.
Peres and Saar each referred to the projected visit in May by Pope Francis, who Peres said reflects a new spirit of hope and tolerance. “He has become a symbol. In these difficult days, he appears as a ray of hope to all of us.”
Saar said that his ministry is strengthening the status of Christian clergy and is helping them to provide to their respective communities.
On the price tag issue, he was adamant that the government will not condone attacks against any religion or its practitioners, and insisted that the price tag groups do not represent the Jewish people, nor do they represent Jewish values.
Referring to the papal visit Saar said that Pope Francis is one of the most important and esteemed figures in the world today.
At the conclusion of the reception, Saar chatted with Theophilos and other senior heads of Churches and also checked out the date next week on which the Eastern Church celebrates Christmas.