Israeli President Herzog visits Haifa church at center of Jewish-Christian tensions

Israeli President Herzog visits Haifa church at center of Jewish-Christian tensions

Following months of tensions between Jews and Christians surrounding the Stella Maris Monastery in Haifa, Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited the site on Wednesday.

“In recent months, we have seen very serious phenomena towards the Christian denominations in the Holy Land,” commented the president. “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, and I am very grateful to the Israel Police and the law enforcement agencies for taking this issue seriously.

“Here too, in this peaceful, beautiful community, which is hundreds of years old – under no circumstances should it feel threatened. We must respect the members of all religions, we have committed to this since the dawn of our existence. This is the most basic commandment of ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’’

The Stella Maris church in southwestern Haifa is a Catholic monastery for Discalced Carmelite monks, located on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Haifa. The main church inside the Stella Maris Monastery is said to contain the Cave of Elijah, a grotto where according to the Old Testament, the Prophet Elijah lived for some time. Inside the cave, there is an altar carved into the rock, with a small statue of the Prophet. The current church and monastery, built under the orders of Brother Cassini of the Order, opened in 1836.

According to Jewish tradition, first recorded in writing in the 13th century and later records, the tomb in the grotto in the church is the tomb of Elisha the prophet, a student of Elijah the prophet.

The entrance to the grotto is inside the church, making it problematic for Jews to access the site as it is forbidden to enter places where idols, icons, or religious statues are found. 

<em>President of Israel Isaac Herzog visits the Stella Maris Monastery in Haifa to meet with police and church representatives 9 August 2023 Credit Kobi Gidon GPO<em>

“I come here on behalf of the entire State and people of Israel to reinforce our commitment to the full protection of freedom of religion and worship in the State of Israel,” President Herzog said. “We are committed to the story of the Christian denominations in the Holy Land, a special and unique story which has inspired people around the world – and not without reason, because here in the Holy Land the three great monotheistic religions emerged and we must do everything so that the common life continues together.”

He added, “We have to make sure that the theological dialogue can take place anywhere, but to make sure that everybody is fully protected and that the serenity of this place is safeguarded. My message is both internally to all Christians as citizens of Israel, and to all the dwellers and worshipers from all over the world: The Christian communities are safe and sound, and protected, and thriving in the Holy Land.”

President Herzog was accompanied on his visit by Israel Police Inspector General Yaakov Shabtai, and met with the Abbot of Stella Maris, Father Jean Joseph Bergara, along with representatives of the leadership of the Christian communities.

Israel Police chief Shabtai stated that, “The Israel Police is engaging in an array of activities to eradicate the incidents and trends that affect the sense of security for all of us. We are here to reassure you of that and to offer any assistance that may be required. As part of the cooperation between all the parties, we are working to bridge the gaps in places of conflict while simultaneously striving to provide a vital sense of security.”

“I want to thank the Israel Police, the Inspector General, the Mayor and everyone who has expressed support not only with words but also with very clear actions against all these phenomena, on behalf of all the Christian denominations here in Israel” commented head of the monastery Father Jean Joseph Bergara. “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. We want to live together in peace and harmony. Thank you for your cooperation and support. We are all children of the same G-d.”

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