The German abbot who was instructed to remove the cross he was wearing when he accompanied a German Cabinet member to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem told Ynet Thursday that the incident is part of a changed atmosphere of the government toward the Christian community in Israel and a denial that it is a holy city for three religions.
Nikodemus Schnabel, a high-ranking member of the Benedictine Order serving as the abbot of the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, escorted German Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger Wednesday on her visit to the holy Jewish site when he was approached by an usher and told he must remove his cross which she saw as a provocation, despite his explanation that he was a man of the Church.
"It was a very strange experience," Schnabel told Ynet. The incident occurred as he was escorting the German government minister to the Dung Gate where a car was waiting for her – and it took place in the public plaza behind the area set aside for prayer.
"This is for me really a bizarre moment because I had no intention to pray, only to cross the public space as I am dressed every day," he said of his interaction with an usher from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
"I said, ‘look, this is how I dress. I don’t want to provoke anybody. It’s a kind of religious freedom. But I… for example, if you, as a Jew, come to my place and you wear a kippah, fine. If you’d like to come barefoot, fine. You know, this is um… I’m very open-minded. But again, we’re not talking about that I am entering a sacred space of another religion. But this is public space," he said.
Schnabel acknowledges that he was likely dealing with an "over-zealous official," but that it was not his first time walking in the Western Wall plaza and he has never been asked to cover his cross.
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation later issued an apology for the incident. "We apologize for any distress caused. The Western Wall is open to all. It should be emphasized that there are no regulations regarding this matter at the Western Wall Plaza. The usher approached and politely asked if it would be possible to cover the cross to prevent any discomfort, as has recently occurred in the Old City, out of a desire to respect both the visitor and the site. When he refused, entry was obviously not denied, and the usher respected the decision and continued on her way," read a statement from the foundation, which oversees the holy site.
Schnabel says the incident is part of a larger problem.
"The point is, of course, yesterday’s incident is a minor incident. To be honest, this is not my daily problem. I can say: 'okay, misunderstanding, ok, fine.' But the point is, you know, from the beginning of the year, there are many spitting attacks on me, verbal attacks, people who really push me. And you know, it’s a part of a whole atmosphere that changed in a not very good direction," he told Ynet.
The abbot says he has received "great signs of solidarity from civil society, (including from) many of my Jewish friends," which he calls "heart touching."
But there has been total silence from the government, which he says makes him "a little bit tired and sad."
He adds: "Because I view Jerusalem as a holy city for three religions and also a city where non-believers are welcome and I have the feeling there’s really atmosphere changing toward a direction that’s not good for this city. Denying my presence here, not accepting that Christianity, or Islam or different kinds of Judaism, that they are not an integral part of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is holy to three religions. And so, to be honest, yes, the incident is a minor thing, forget it. But if you know what I experienced the last weeks and months, then maybe you can understand that I am a little bit more sensitive."
Schnabel has been leading a campaign in Germany and among Christians around the world to inform them of the difficult situations Christians in Israel are in and the growing number of incidents of abuse and attack that they endure.