JERUSALEM -- Catholic leaders in Jerusalem are increasingly concerned that an apparent uptick in nationalistic hate crimes by Jewish extremists against Christians and Muslims could mar the upcoming visit of Pope Francis.
On Friday, for the second time this week, anti-Christian graffiti was discovered on a church in Jerusalem. It follows a similar incident Monday at the Notre Dame Center, a complex in Jerusalem owned by the Vatican. The defacements come after more than 20 major hate crimes in the past few months have targeted Christian and Muslim communities.
While such crimes are not unusual -- a monitoring group found that 32 religious buildings have been vandalized or subjected to arson attempts in the past four years -- the frequency of such incidents appears to have increased in recent weeks.
When they first started in 2011, these so-called "price tag" attacks were part of a campaign to extract retribution for actions against Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The idea was that anytime the Israeli army removed an illegal outpost or Palestinian militants attacked settlers, somebody would pay a price. Today, these attacks have spread into Israel proper and don't always follow actions against Jewish settlements.
"We are very concerned about the repeated acts of hatred against Christians by the price-tag groups," the Rev. Jamal Khader, rector of Latin Patriarchate Seminary, said Friday.
"They are creating an atmosphere of hatred that is bad for everyone," Rev. Khader said. "The pope is about to visit and we need to promote coexistence. I am not worried about his safety; Israel is an expert at security. But I am talking about creating the proper atmosphere to welcome the pope."
On Thursday, the Catholic Church called on authorities to take action against the attacks. While most acts have focused on property, there is fear they could pave the way for more violent hate crimes.
Opinions vary about who is behind the crimes and whether it is a coordinated effort. Some point to radical settlers from the West Bank community of Yitzhar. A 2009 book by rabbis there proclaimed that in some situations, killing non-Jews is permissible under Jewish law. Others believe it is more likely bored youths sporadically carrying out acts of nationalistic vandalism.
Either way, Israeli law enforcement officials said this week patrols were being stepped up in Jerusalem and in the country's north, where Muslims have been targeted.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said arrests have been made, including a 22-year-old from the town of Yokneam who admitted to carrying out 10 acts of vandalism against Arabs.
On Wednesday, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch met with Israel's attorney general to discuss legislation to label such hate crimes as terrorism.
But activists -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- say that's not enough.
A coalition of 40 rights groups known as Tag Meir ("spreading the light") plan to demonstrate Sunday outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem. Their message: Wake up -- it's time for the Jewish state to deal with this.
"Netanyahu keeps calling on Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Well, we want Netanyahu to recognize a Jewish state too, and we believe that a Jewish state does not act like this," said Tag Meir Chairman Gadi Gvaryahu.
During Pope Francis' visit to Israel, he is scheduled to meet with Bartholonew I, the spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians.
The meetings between the ecumenical patriarch and the leader of the world's Roman Catholics on May 25-26 will commemorate the historic visit of their predecessors 50 years ago that launched a dialogue aimed at ending the two churches' schism in 1054.