By Richard Edmondson
There still has been no arrest in the vandalism of St. Stephen’s Church, a Christian site near Jerusalem which vandals entered and desecrated on the night of September 19. I am, for that matter, not especially hopeful an arrest will be forthcoming. Israel has an extremely sorry history when it comes to investigating and prosecuting criminal cases of this sort. The record speaks for itself.
An article published by Haaretz on September 24 reports that over 50 Christian and Muslim religious sites have been vandalized since the year 2009. In that time only nine indictments have been filed, and only seven convictions have been handed down. That’s bad enough, but an article published Tuesday at Crux, a Catholic news site, suggests the record may be even worse than Haaretz is reporting. “There have been some 80 incidents of vandalism against churches and Christian sites in the Holy Land over the last decade. In most of the cases, no arrests or indictments have taken place,” that article states.
All I can tell you is that over the years since I’ve been blogging, which is about seven years now, I have reported on numerous attacks by vandals on religious sites in Israel, yet still the practice remains an acute problem.
My initial report on this month’s attack at St. Stephen’s was posted September 23. In that post I noted that the church is located on the grounds of a Catholic monastery, Beit Jamal, a Salesian monastery that lies near the city of Beit Shemesh. I also noted that this is the third time in four years that the site has been vandalized and commented, “Apparently the site is on somebody’s hit list.”
The previous attacks occurred in 2013, when a firebomb was thrown at the door and hateful graffiti scrawled on the walls, and in January of 2016, when the cemetery was vandalized. At the time, I put up a post on the 2016 cemetery attack, which you can access here. All this taken into consideration, it does seem as if the church might be on a hit list of some sort.
Whether this has anything to do with the fact that the locale is believed to have been the burial place of St. Stephen, I can’t say. But indeed, there is a longstanding tradition in church history that the saint’s remains were buried here. This of course is why the church is named after him, and perhaps for this reason, it is worth recounting a bit of St. Stephen’s story
Stephen, his speech before Jewish leaders and his death by stoning at their hands, are told of in the sixth and seventh chapters of the Book of Acts. Initially selected to help with daily distribution of food, Stephen was described as “a man full of God’s grace and power” who “did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people,” and he seems to have risen quickly to prominence among the disciples in Jerusalem. This of course in the months after Christ’s crucifixion.
Jews from one of the synagogues began to accuse Stephen in a manner very reminiscent of the charges brought against Jesus–and, like Jesus himself, Stephen ended up before the Jewish ruling council, or Sanhedrin. He was, among other things, accused of speaking “words of blasphemy against Moses and against God,” and he was also alleged to have invoked Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of the temple. It’s probably not too much of a stretch, then, to speculate he may even have told people that God didn’t live in the Jewish temple (as Jewish leaders claimed) and that it was not necessary for people to actually go there in order to worship God, that God can be worshiped anywhere. This would have reflected Jesus’ teaching in John 4:21-23, and if Stephen indeed spread such teachings, then it would have infuriated the Jewish leadership all the more, for the temple was an enormously lucrative enterprise for them.
Then the high priest asked him, “Are these charges true?”
This is the opening line in Acts chapter 7, and it is at this point that Stephen launches into his lengthy speech. Basically, it’s a speech recounting the narrative of the Old Testament. The Abrahamic covenant, the stories of Issac and Jacob, the twelve patriarchs, the bondage in Egypt, Moses and the Exodus–all of this is spoken of by Stephen. All of it makes up about ninety percent of his speech, and for the most part it doesn’t ruffle too many feathers, but then we get to the following passage–and it is at this point that all “heck” breaks loose. Here again, the speaker is Stephen:
You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him–you who have received the law that was put into effect but have not obeyed it.
Notice that Stephen chooses the same adjective–“stiff-necked”–used by Moses in describing the Israelites. He is in effect saying that the Abrahamic covenant is hereby abrogated. If you consistently disobey the law–most especially if you murder God’s son–what other conclusion than that can be drawn? The covenant is dead. Jews can no longer consider themselves God’s “chosen,” Stephen is basically saying. It’s a pivotal moment. It is literally earth shaking. And the reaction from the Sanhedrin is spontaneous and immediate:
When they heard this they were furious, and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city, and began to stone him.
Thus Stephen became the first Christian martyr in recorded history. Interestingly, the text notes that one of those present, giving his approval to it all, was Saul–later Paul–who, somewhat astonishingly, ended up becoming an apostle of Christ himself.
Could this narrative in the New Testament have anything to do with why St. Stephen’s and the monastery have been attacked repeatedly?
The night of September 19/20, when the vandal(s) entered the church, was the eve of the Jewish New Year. “The monastery is open for visitors and generally has good relations with its Jewish neighbors,” the Crux article notes, “including the residents of an ultra-Orthodox town.” The “ultra-Orthodox town” being referred to here is Beit Shemesh, located nearby, a city of about 103,000 population.
Beit Shemesh is mentioned in the Book of Joshua as being among the towns allotted to the Levites, or priestly class. In the modern, post-1948 era it was settled by Jewish immigrants from Bulgaria, though by the late 1970s it had become a major center of the Likud Party. The “good relations” mentioned in the Crux article probably pertain to Neturei Karta, which has a small community living in Beit Shemesh, primarily in one neighborhood of the city. You can go here to see video of a protest in which an NK member, holding a Palestinian flag, is attacked and chased by Israeli police. The date on the video is 2015. An earlier video, also shot in Beit Shemesh, shows a confrontation between police and a large group of Orthodox men demanding enforcement of segregation between the sexes. It is perhaps not terribly surprising that a Christian church and monastery located in proximity to such a city would come under attack.
The vandals destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary, a cross, and smashed stained glass windows depicting events in the life of Jesus. While Hebrew graffiti has been a hallmark of previous church attacks in Israel, nothing of the like was left in this case. Still, Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, the Catholic patriarchal vicar for Jerusalem and Palestine, expressed the view that the attack was most likely carried out by “Jewish extremists.”
“Vandals broke into the church and destroyed the crosses, the statue of Our Lady and the stained glass, as well as the faces of the saints,” Mgr. Marcuzzo said.
“In the Old Testament, it is written to destroy the statues as a symbol of idolatry. Here, these people distort the Scriptures and promote fanaticism. Perhaps it is not a direct attack on Christians, but it is certainly a message against those who do not share their ideology and it is scary because it shows that there is no respect for others. Living together is undermined,” he added.
Anther cleric who commented on the matter is Salesian Father Antonio Scudu, who serves as caretaker of the church.
“I was shocked. I didn’t expect to see something like this. The church is always open. If you see what happened, you feel they did it with hate. They smashed everything,” he said.
Israeli Police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld told the Catholic News Service that the case is being given “top priority.”
“There have been arrests in previous cases. We are looking into this case to see if it was an individual or a group. These are all separate cases,” Rosenfeld said. “People can say what they want. This kind of case is top priority.”
Yet as the report posted by Crux notes:
Christians in the Holy Land, including Catholic leaders, have expressed frustration with lack of legal action against cases of desecration and vandalism of sacred places.
Even as the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land issued a statement condemning the September 20 desecration and vandalism of a Catholic shrine in Israel, some people criticized the statement’s “weak language” and asked, “How long will we be tolerant?”
“Unfortunately, in these situations we feel how vulnerable we are,” one person wrote on Facebook.
The words “how long will we be tolerant?” have a certain poignance to them, for in Israel there are “Jewish extremists” who seem to feel the nation has been overly “tolerant” by even allowing Christians and Christian churches to exist inside the country’s boundaries. One such individual is Benzi Gopstein, whose views I discussed in the post I put up in January of 2016 on the St. Stephen’s cemetery desecration.
Gopstein is the leader of Lehava, the far-right Israeli organization that opposes intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews. He also hates Christianity. My 2016 post included an excerpt from a Times of Israel report in which Gopstein is quoted as referring to Christianity as “that accursed religion” and likening Christians to “vampires.”
Interestingly, the Lehava leader has also been referred to as “Israel’s teflon man, nothing sticks to him.”
The Israeli government may be feeling mounting pressure to do something about the wave of attacks upon religious sites, and if that is the case, we could end up seeing an arrest in the St. Stephen’s case. This of course would not alleviate the anti-Christian hatred felt by Jews like Gopstein, and if anything will make it worse. There is a reason the Christian Church, founded by men like Stephen, ended up breaking off from Judaism: the two faiths are pretty much incompatible.