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Israel hate crimes "poison atmosphere" for pope visit

The head of the Roman Catholic church in the Holy Land has said that Israeli hate crimes against local Muslims and Christians are souring relations ahead of a papal visit.

HAIFA: The head of the Roman Catholic church in the Holy Land said Sunday that Israeli hate crimes against local Muslims and Christians are souring relations ahead of a papal visit.

"The unrestrained acts of vandalism poison the atmosphere -- the atmosphere of co-existence and the atmosphere of collaboration, especially in these two weeks prior to the visit of Pope Francis," Latin Patriarch Fuad Twal said.

"It is also a blight on the democracy that Israel ascribes to itself," he said at a news conference in the northern port city of Haifa, ahead of an annual procession in honour of the Virgin Mary.

The pope's visit is scheduled to begin in Jordan on May 24, and he is due to spend two days in the Holy Land from May 25.

On Friday, vandals spray-painted anti-Christian graffiti on a Jerusalem church, days after the Roman Catholic church demanded Israel act following the discovery of racist slogans daubed on a Vatican-owned property elsewhere in the city.

"The bishops are very concerned about the lack of security and lack of responsiveness from the political sector, and fear an escalation of violence," the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem said Wednesday in a statement.

After last week's attack, Israeli police boosted security around holy sites.

Israel has been struggling to contain the spiralling number of so-called "price tag" hate crimes by Jewish extremists targeting Palestinian and Arab property, including mosques and churches.

Although police have made scores of arrests, there have been no successful prosecutions for price tag attacks, and the government has come under mounting pressure to authorise the Shin Bet internal security agency to intervene.

On Sunday evening, about 200 people rallied outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's official Jerusalem residence to protest against the attacks, a photographer said.

Among them were Israeli Arabs from the town of Fureidis, where last month anti-Muslim graffiti was painted on a mosque and tyres of parked cars were slashed.

Also present were Christians, secular leftist Israelis and several wearing Orthodox Jewish skullcaps.

Police, in a joint operation with the Shin Bet, arrested two Israeli men on Sunday on suspicion of committing hate crimes.

"There were two guys that were arrested by police who are suspected of being involved in criminal activity from nationalist motives," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

"They are being questioned in connection with a number of incidents".

Police and the Shin Bet have reportedly been concerned Jewish extremists could increase attacks on Christian sites ahead of the pope's arrival in an attempt to attract media attention.

While Rosenfeld acknowledged "a definite increase" in hate crimes against churches and mosques recently, he stressed it was not yet clear whether the spike was down to the papal visit or other factors.

"It's difficult for me to say yes or no, black or white," he said.

In a sign of roiling tensions, Jerusalem police -- at the request of municipal officials -- asked a Franciscan centre just inside the Old City walls to take down a large banner welcoming Pope Francis in English, Arabic and Hebrew, informed sources said.

Twal took the Israeli authorities to task for what he saw as laxity in pursuing the perpetrators.

"How can it be that they don't catch the perpetrators?" he asked, saying the attacks were "only drawing condemnation" from Israel's leaders but resulting in few arrests.

"Given that the vandals are largely unprosecuted, one must question the priority of the government to get to the bottom of the problem," he said.

Israeli ministers held an emergency meeting on Wednesday, pledging to enforce harsh measures against perpetrators.

"We are encouraged by the fact that Justice Minister Tzipi Livni held an emergency meeting to combat this senseless vandalism," Twal said.

"Hopefully, the issue does not remain solely a matter of sound bites and round table discussion. Until these words become acts, we remain sceptical."

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