Jewish worshippers pray during the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot,...

Jewish worshippers pray during the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot, next to one of the gates to the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, or the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. Credit: AP/Ohad Zwigenberg

JERUSALEM — Israeli police said Wednesday they arrested several people suspected of spitting in the direction of Christian pilgrims and churches in Jerusalem this week as religious tensions flared anew in the contested capital that the three Abrahamic faiths consider holy.

As Jews celebrate Sukkot — the weeklong Feast of Tabernacles that marks the fall harvest and commemorates the desert wandering of the Jews during the Exodus — processions of ultra-Orthodox Jews through the Old City's narrow streets have led to numerous spitting incidents and left Jerusalem on edge.

One person was detained after a spitting incident from one of the processions was caught on video earlier in the week and provoked widespread outrage on social media. The video, first captured by an Israeli hotline for anti-Christian assaults, shows ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting at the feet of foreign Christian worshipers in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Police also arrested four other suspects for spitting toward churches on Wednesday. One was charged with assault, and four were charged with unlawful disorderly conduct, police spokesperson Dean Elsdunne said.

Videos spread on social media on Wednesday showing a procession of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrating Sukkot spitting at the entrance to an ancient church in Jerusalem. The site, where tradition holds that Jesus was whipped on Pontius Pilate's orders, is known as the Church of Flagellation.

Such footage has stirred concerns of rising intolerance among religious Jews and drew rare condemnation on Tuesday from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country's official rabbi and other senior officials. Police did not immediately respond to questions about the identity of those arrested, saying only that one of them was a minor.

Christians — the vast majority of whom are Palestinians who consider themselves to be living under occupation in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem — have linked the uptick in anti-Christian vandalism and attacks to Netanyahu's far-right government, which they say is emboldening Jewish extremists.

Israeli ultra-Orthodox worshippers pray during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot...

Israeli ultra-Orthodox worshippers pray during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's Old City, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. Credit: AP/Ohad Zwigenberg

This week has been particularly tense, with ultra-Orthodox Jews carrying ritual palm fronds for Sukkot parading through the Via Dolorosa, where Christians believe Jesus hauled his cross toward his crucifixion, in the Old City, alongside Christian pilgrims.

Israeli media reported that one of Netanyahu’s far-right allies, coalition lawmaker Simcha Rothman, had joined a Sukkot march during which ultra-Orthodox Jews spit at churches. They said that the procession was led by Rothman’s brother, Rabbi Natan Rothman.

The lawmaker's spokesperson, Odelya Azulay, confirmed that he had participated in a religious procession led by his brother on Wednesday, but denied that any spitting occurred at the event.

Christian advocates accuse the government of neglecting their complaints and authorities of doing little or nothing to stop the rise in religiously motivated harassment.

Jewish worshippers pray during the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot,...

Jewish worshippers pray during the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot, next to one of the gates to the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, or the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, in the Old City of Jerusalem, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. Credit: AP/Ohad Zwigenberg

Israeli ministers denounced spitting at clergy and police vowed to crack down. Israel captured east Jerusalem in a 1967 war and later annexed it in a move not internationally recognized.

Police also said they would launch a probe into acts of anti-Christian hate, ramp up surveillance in the Old City — where winding stone alleyways already teem with security cameras — and consider imposing fines on perpetrators.

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