Explainer: From Stella Maris to St. Elijah, what is happening with the Christians in Haifa
Over the past several months, members of an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect known as Berslav Hasidim have been making unwelcome visits to the Catholic monastery of Stella Maris in Haifa. The sect's followers believe that the grave of an Israelite prophet called Elisha is in the ancient monastery.
However, local Palestinian Christians dispute the claim, viewing it as an attempt of a "radical group" to take over the holy site.
It started with only a few unnoticeable visitors. Then it progressed to include dozens "bursting" into the church and holding prayers in a "provocative manner", according to advocate George Shehade, a Palestinian Christian resident of the scenic port city.
The monastery gathers significance as it is the world headquarters of a Catholic religious order of friars and nuns called the Carmelites, after Mt. Carmel of the city of Haifa. The order was formed at the end of the 12th century when according to tradition, a French crusader who had gone to the Holy Land had a vision of Christ denouncing the evil done by soldiers.
Fearing the loss of their church, Palestinian Christian volunteers are now present day in and day out, determined not to allow any more Jewish prayers at the Christian site. A metal fence will soon be erected to keep out the undesired visitors.
"For the monastery, things are clear. There is a [Jewish] religious group who came to seize the monastery, saying they have a right, but this is an aggression that we will stand against", said George Shehade.
Similarly, in Haifa, Israeli extremists have in recent weeks attempted to storm the St. Eljah Cathedral, a Melkite Greek Catholic church serving Greek-Catholics that was constructed in 1939.
'Responsibility on the state and police'
The incidents at Haifa's Stella Maris monastery and St. Elijah Cathedral are occurring following multiple attacks against Christian sites in Jerusalem, the most recent of which was at the Church of the Tomb of Mary, one of the ancient Churches in occupied East Jerusalem.
At the beginning of the year, two young Jewish men vandalised a Christian cemetery near Jaffa Gate outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Then in February, A Jewish-American tourist vandalised a statue depicting Jesus at a Catholic Church inside the Old City near Bab al-Asbat (Lion's Gate).
Palestinian Christian leaders attribute the increase in attacks on churches and other Christian sites to the lack of a proper response from the police and the state. The question they often pose is why the authorities' reactions seem swift and robust when dealing with attacks against Jews yet appear soft and insufficient when indicting a Jew for attacking a Christian person or property. This leniency in the indictment and light sentencing does not seem to bring about any serious deterrence, said Wadi Abu Nassar, another resident of Haifa.
Following the attack on the Church of the Tomb of Mary in March, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem finally appealed for "international protection" of holy sites citing "terrorist attacks, by radical Israeli groups, targeting churches, cemeteries, and Christian properties".
The string of incidents has led one Israeli journalist, Yossi Eli, to go undercover in occupied East Jerusalem to witness firsthand the harassment inflicted upon Christian clergy by Jewish extremists within the Old City. During his walk dressed as a Franciscan monk, the investigative reporter was laughed at and spat at not once but twice by Israeli troops and men wearing Jewish Orthodox attire.
Yossi Eli dubbed his experience as "shocking and intense", the harassment towards Christians "widespread".
Church authorities and protesters have called on Israeli authorities to put an end to repeated attacks on Mar Elias Cathedral, a Palestinian Christian church in Haifa, which some Israeli settlers claim is the burial site of the Prophet Elisha ⬇— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) July 31, 2023
🎥: @Reemkhabbazy pic.twitter.com/mRhuuA3G0W
'Christian threat to Judaism'
George Shehade, the lawyer from Haifa, blamed the harassment on "extremist beliefs" held by some Jewish groups regarding Christianity and perceived "threats" to Judaism apparently stemming from Christian missionary activities.
"They attempt to diminish the Christian presence in this country", he added.
Shehade, however, stressed that some Jewish Rabbis had expressed support for Palestinian Christians in Haifa against the claims of this Hasidic group.
Palestinian Christians account for some 2 per cent of Israel's population. The Israel Central Bureau of Statistics estimated their number on the eve of Christmas 2022 at approximately 182,000.
Another 51,000 live in the occupied West Bank, according to unofficial figures.