The head of the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem has described as "heartbreaking" an incident of being spat at by Jewish extremists in the Old City, describing the suspects as "hooligans of religion."
According to police, two Jewish Israelis were detained Feb. 3, the Jewish Sabbath, on suspicion that they spat at and insulted Benedictine Abbot Nikodemus Schnabel.
Officers said in a statement that the incident had occurred earlier in the day and the two suspects were tracked down a few hours later. One of the suspects was 17 years old. No details were released about the second.
Abbot Schnabel, who heads the monastery on Mount Zion -- traditionally believed to be the site where the Blessed Virgin Mary spent her last days -- told OSV News he was particularly saddened because those involved in harassing him were wearing traditional religious Jewish garments.
"For me it was really heartbreaking because these people were dressed as religious Jews. And for a religious Jew, on Sabbath, it's really a desecration of the holy day," Abbot Schnabel told OSV News.
He said he had been heartened by the messages of support after a clip of the incident appeared on social media.
"It's a shame, but thank God I got many, many solidarity calls from rabbis who said this is totally unacceptable, we're really ashamed of that," he said the Jewish leaders told him.
Rabbi Kenneth Brander wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that "this person who attacked the priest is the furthest thing from an Orthodox Jew. He is a disgrace to our people and to his family. We are sicken by his actions, and charges should be pressed. This is not what Judaism represents."
In recent years, the Christian minority in Jerusalem have complained about feeling harassed by Jewish extremists. Five people were arrested in October on suspicion of spitting at Christians in the Old City. However, the weekend incident with the abbot is the first such incident since the war started after the Oct. 7 Hamas militant group attacks on Israel.
A video of the incident showed Abbot Schnabel walking with Natalie Amiri, journalist with ARD German television, who was filming him. The monk says "shalom" (hello) into the camera before being approached by two youths who start cursing Jesus in Hebrew and spit at him.
"What is wrong with these people, that they cannot accept that Jerusalem is a multicultural, multiethnic city -- holy for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike?" he said.
The German-born abbot said questions need to be asked about some of the religious formation taking place in specialist schools known as yeshivas.
"For me, it's a really big question: What are they taught, these special groups, in the yeshiva, in the synagogue? I think there is a lack of good serious religious education," he said.
Saying the vast majority of Jews, Christians and Muslims get on well in Jerusalem, "but then there are the hooligans of religion who really misuse religion for their identity -- who really are very black and white in their thinking: friend-enemy, good people-bad people, people I can trust-people I should destroy. And this is, for me, really hooliganism of religion.
"And this is a very big problem. And for me, I really ask the Israeli government and also the religious leaders in Israel that they're really aware of that phenomenon," he told OSV News.
Foreign Minister Israel Katz condemned what he described as an "ugly incident."
"Under Israeli rule, members of all faiths enjoy total freedom of worship, as never has been the case before," he said in a statement.
This was not the first time Abbot Schnabel has been targeted, however.
On July 19, 2023, he refused a request to cover his pectoral cross while visiting the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall), the most holy site for Jews in the world.
In a video clip distributed on the X social media platform, an employee of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which is responsible for the Jewish site, could be heard addressing Abbot Schnabel. She said she respected his religion, but the cross is "really big and inappropriate for this place."
The clergyman objected and, according to eyewitnesses, left the site without covering his cross. He said the warden's behavior did not show respect, but prevented him from exercising a human right. "I am an abbot, this is my dress," Abbot Schnabel told the woman at the time.