HAIFA, Israel (OSV News) — Israeli President Isaac Herzog denounced the increasing violence against Christians in Israel during a visit on Aug. 9 to the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery in Haifa.
Herzog was accompanied by Israel Police Inspector General Yaakov Shabtai and emphasized Israel’s commitment to the full protection of freedom of religion and worship. He met with patriarchs and Church leaders including Cardinal-designate Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, and Father Jean Joseph Bergara, the monastery superior of Stella Maris.
The visit comes against the background of recent attacks against the monastery in particular by a few fringe members of the Breslov ultra-orthodox sect who began arriving at the monastery in May, claiming it was a Jewish holy site, and increasing attacks against churches and Christian clergy in general.
“In recent months we have seen very serious phenomena towards the Christian denominations in the Holy Land,” said Herzog. “Our brothers and sisters, Christian citizens, who feel attacked in their places of prayer, in their cemeteries, on the streets. I view this phenomenon as extreme and unacceptable in any shape or form. This phenomenon needs to be uprooted.”
Recent attacks on monastery
The president called for greater understanding of the histories of the religious communities in the Holy Land, noting that it was the birthplace of the three monotheistic religions.
“We must do everything so that the common life continues together,” he said.
Father Bergara thanked those who had come out with unequivocal expressions of support both in word and in deed for the monastery and the Christian community.
“We need to work together to encourage our dialogue, our solidarity and our brotherhood, because we belong to the same country and live in the same places,” he said. “We want to live together in peace and harmony. Thank you for your cooperation and support. We are all children of the same God.”
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.
Holy site is place of unity
In early May, 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.
On July 27, 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.
The monastery has always been a place of peace and unity, and it must continue to be so, said Father Bergara.
“But we need to be respected also,” the priest told OSV News July 30. He had recently arrived as monastery superior.
“We have received a lot of solidarity and support,” Father Bergara 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.”