HAIFA, Israel OSV News – The Stella Maris Carmelite monastery has seen destruction and banishment over its centuries’-old history, dating back to mid-13th century. The recent attempts by a group of Jewish religious extremists to declare the monastery a Jewish holy site has however, for the first time, led to the monks installing metal fencing around its entrance.
"I understand this is to keep those extremists we don’t want out, but the problem is the fence also keeps the community out," said Rania Lahem, 47, a member of the Haifa Christian community. "For us as Christians this is a very popular holy site for all denominations. We come here often as a family."
And indeed, the mountaintop monastery at Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, facing the sea, has been a place of pilgrimage and tours for peoples of all faiths. Jewish, Christian and Muslim residents of the surrounding neighborhood took pride and respected the beauty and tranquility of the monastery in their midst.
In early May, however, a few fringe members of the Breslov ultra-orthodox sect began arriving at the monastery, claiming it was a Jewish holy site and the burial site of the prophet Elisha, the successor of the prophet Elijah – both of whom are venerated by Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
No archaeological remains have been found to substantiate their claims, noted Wadie Abunassar, coordinator of the Holy Land Christian Forum
According to Christian tradition, the cave where the Old Testament says Elijah lived for a period is located under the church’s raised altar. Another site, also on Mount Carmel, is also associated with Elijah, and revered by Christians, Jews, Muslims and Druze.
Successive greater numbers of fringe members of the sect, followers of radical rabbi Eliezer Berland, have come to the Carmelite monastery since then, some demanding to be let inside, others praying at the walls of the church, with scuffles breaking out as Christian guards demand they leave. At least once, they physically pushed two men outside the courtyard.
"To be here when (the sect members) are here is frightening," said Lahem. "We are not a violent community. Why are they using these means against us? We don’t go storm synagogues. It is very sad for us because Haifa isn’t like this … we respect each other. But this is part of the atmosphere of what is happening in the country, part of what (Minister of National Security) Itamar Ben-Gvir is trying to do with the Arabs here."
Ben-Gvir, leader of the extremist Otzma Yehudit, Jewish Power, political party, is known for his extremist racist views and was convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization in 2008.
"The police must act (more decisively) against this phenomenon and not allow it to grow," said Jewish resident Gil Meller, who lives near the monastery. "I don’t expect Ben-Gvir to do anything, but I do expect the local municipal police to protect the safety of the residents and take steps to stop this. Haifa is a mixed city … for all religions."
On July 27, as the Israeli parliament – led by the most religious and nationalist extremist government in Israel’s history – was busy passing the controversial "reasonableness bill," which will reduce the power of the Supreme Court to overrule unreasonable government rulings, a full busload of the religious extremists along with members of the racist "La Familia" group made their way onto the grounds of the monastery and were met by young Christians protecting the monastery.
That evening Christian leaders and thousands of local Christians and their supporters gathered at the monastery to express solidarity with the monastery and demand greater police action against the trespassers.
"Many in the Christian community are wondering whether a fringe minority might indeed start a trend that might lead to stronger and stronger outside intervention by such extremist groups at this Christian site and may eventually end in them taking full control over the site, as previously happened in Nablus and Hebron," said the Justice and Peace Commission Assembly of the Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land in a statement released on July 28.
"The State of Israel repeatedly professes to guarantee all of its citizens freedom of religious practice. The State also professes to protect its citizens from crime and unrest, guaranteeing law and order. It is incomprehensible that these manifestations of contempt can be allowed to continue."
Christian leaders and members of the Christian community say that while Haifa mayor Einat Kalisch Rotem has come out against the attempted take-over of the holy site, they still fear that if something substantial is not done to stop the members of the sect from coming to the monastery with their claims, it will soon become a Jewish pilgrimage site.
In a July 27 Twitter post, Kalisch Rotem wrote pledging support for the monastery: "The church of the order of the Discalced Carmelites in Stella Maris belongs to the Christians. We will not allow foreigners to enter it and we will not allow external factors to break the deep and delicate relationship in the city. The police and the inspection division of the Haifa municipality invest every effort even today, and prepare to protect the city of Haifa. Together we will succeed, sanity will win.
The monastery has always been a place of peace and unity, said recently arrived monastery superior Father Jean Joseph Bergara, and it must continue to be so.
"But we need to be respected also," Father Bergara told OSV News on July 30, standing in front of the church just prior to beginning a prayer for the thousands of local Christians. They had arrived that afternoon at the monastery in a convoy from Galilee, following a call for a show of Christian support.
"We have received a lot of solidarity and support," the monastery's superior said. "Also our Jewish neighbors say they are opposed to what is happening, reminding us of the unity we have here. I think we can create better things from what is happening. We have to answer a new call from God for ourselves and our people to help the country reflect on what is peace and justice. Everyone is the child of God and beloved by God."
Members of Christian youth groups and families from Galilee filled the courtyard of the monastery, singing, chanting and beating drums.
The neighborhood has always been an exemplary model of respect and tolerance among all religions, noted resident Rozet Hazzan, who was among those coming to show her presence at the monastery.
"We have never felt this racism. There is a small group trying to destroy our relations," she said. "There is no question that this is a part of what is happening in this country (with the current government). The
Judith Sudilovsky writes for OSV News from Jerusalem.