JERUSALEM – Vandals scribbled anti-Christian graffiti on the outer walls of one of Jerusalem's best-known churches early Tuesday morning, Israeli police said.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the perpetrators defaced a wall leading to the Church of the Dormition. The century-old structure is built on the site where tradition says the Virgin Mary died.
The graffiti, which read "Jesus, son of a whore, price tag," had already been removed by midmorning, said Rosenfeld.
He says police are still searching for the assailants, though suspicion has fallen on a fringe group of pro-settler Jewish extremists who have carried out similar vandalism on churches, mosques and Israeli army property. They say the acts are in response to what they consider pro-Palestinian policies by the Israeli government, a form of retribution they call a "price tag."
Tuesday's graffiti is the latest in a wave of vandalism on Christian holy sites in Israel. Israel has about 155,000 Christian citizens, less than 2 percent of its 7.9 million people, but the repeated defacing of their sacred sites has shocked the country and drawn official condemnation.
"Price tag actions go against the morals and values of Judaism and do great harm to the State of Israel," said President Shimon Peres, speaking at a meeting with one of Israel's chief rabbis during a celebration of the Jewish festival of Sukkoth. "It is forbidden to harm the holy sites of religions and faiths," Peres said.
Church officials have said mere condemnation is not enough. In an interview with the Associated Press last month, one of the church's top officials in the Holy Land, the Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, called for action.
"It's important not just to condemn, but also to work, to take initiatives to stop this phenomenon," he said.
The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land posted a statement about the latest incident on the website of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, saying it was "distressed" with the vandalism.
"This is reminiscent of the graffiti sprayed in the Abbey of Latrun one month ago. Jesus is once again profaned and signed "price tag," a characteristic mark of Israeli extremists," the statement said.
Shortly after Israel evacuated an illegally built West Bank settler outpost last month, vandals burned a door and spray-painted anti-Christian graffiti on the century-old Trappist Monastery in Latrun, outside Jerusalem, with the words "Jesus is a monkey."
In response, the church's top officials issued a "declaration" urging Israeli leaders to take action. Nearly a month later, no arrests have been made.