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Baby Jesus stolen from nativity scene: Harmless prank or hate crime?

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Tom Gralish/The Philadelphia Inquirer/AP

(Read caption) Jim Schatzman, of Flowers by Dante, positions one of the Christmas trees on the altar next to the Nativity scene at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on Tuesday during preparations for Christmas services. Vandals desecrated an outdoor nativity scene at a Roman Catholic church in Haverhill, Mass, Thursday.

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'Tis the season for holiday gifts, family feasts … and the traditional rash of nativity thefts.

Infant Jesus figures have long been targets of holiday controversy and pranksters. However, this year’s replacement of the central figure of a Haverhill, Mass., nativity scene at Sacred Hearts Roman Catholic Church with a pig’s head pushes the boundary between prank and religious denigration.

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Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini says the desecration has "all the elements of a hate crime."

To many members of the Christian faith, the nativity scene is a central fixture of one of the holiest days of the year. Vandalism of any religious shrine is an affront to worshipers and goes against one of the nation’s most central values: freedom of religious expression. Because of that, this theft carries more weight than a simple prank. 

But police are holding off labeling the act as a hate crime, absent any evidence that the perpetrator was motivated by anti-Christian prejudice.

The defacement of a Muslim shrine or Jewish synagogue might more quickly be seen as a hate crime, though that is partly due to the fact that Jews and Muslims are minority religions in the United States. Of the 1,166 hate crimes motivated by religious bias in 2012, the most recent year for which FBI data is available, 60 percent were anti-Jewish and 13 percent were anti-Islamic.

Jews make up 1.8 percent of the US population, according to 2012 Pew report on The Global Religious Landscape. Sensitivity around anti-Semitic vandalism is extremely high, given the global history of persecution of Jews.

While Muslims are the second largest religious group in the world, they make up 1 percent of Americans, according to the Pew report.

Earlier this month, a man in an sports-utility vehicle painted with anti-Muslim messages ran over a 15-year-old Muslim boy while he was getting into the family car in front of a Kansas City mosque. The FBI is investigating the matter as a hate crime.