Church leaders criticise past inaction by Israeli police as they denounce "criminal acts" that they say were motivated by "religious bigotry and hatred against Christians."
A Jerusalem bishop said he was "dismayed" by the desecration of dozens of Christian graves on the edge of the Old City, as police probed the vandalism.
Stone graves lay in pieces with crosses toppled at the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion, where Christians believe Jesus's Last Supper took place.
"We discovered that more than 30 tombstones and crosses were smashed to pieces," Hosam Naoum, an Anglican bishop, told journalists on Wednesday at the cemetery.
Church authorities said the damage was discovered on Tuesday, while security camera footage from January 1 showed two men or boys vandalising the site while wearing Jewish attire.
"These criminal acts were motivated by religious bigotry and hatred against Christians," the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem said in a statement.
Israeli police said they had launched an investigation into "the defacement of a large number of tombstones in the Protestant cemetery".
Two Jewish settlers snuck into a Christian cemetery in occupied East Jerusalem and caused damage to more than 30 graves.— TRT World (@trtworld) January 4, 2023
The Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem condemned the desecration of the graves and called the act a "hate crime" pic.twitter.com/fMyr8VYlxJ
Frequent targets on Christians
Standing before one of the damaged graves, Naoum said: "We are not only dismayed, but we are very much saddened."
The bishop said the cemetery was established in the mid-19th century and is the final resting place of figures, including clergy, scientists and politicians.
Among them were "people of great importance that have contributed to the history of Jerusalem and to the life of the people here," he said.
Israel's foreign ministry called for the perpetrators to be prosecuted, writing on Twitter that "this immoral act is an affront to religion."
Mount Zion lies outside the Old City walls and has drawn pilgrims for centuries.
In December 2021, church leaders warned that "Christians have become the target of frequent and sustained attacks by fringe radical groups" in the occupied East Jerusalem.
The statement criticised inaction by law enforcement and local officials, accusations deemed "baseless" by the Israeli foreign ministry.
In 2018, vandals also tore down concrete crosses marking dozens of graves at the Saint Stephen's Church graveyard within Beit Jamal monastery.