By Martin Barillas
Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited the Stella Maris Monastery in Haifa following attacks by Jewish extremists against the site and other Christian places of worship in Israel.
“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,” Herzog said Aug. 9.
“In recent months we have seen very serious incidents against the Christian denominations in the Holy Land, our brothers and sisters, Christian citizens who feel attacked in the places of prayer, in the cemeteries, on the street. I view this phenomenon extremely seriously; it is unacceptable in any way. This phenomenon needs to be uprooted, and I am very grateful to Israel police and the enforcement agencies for taking this issue seriously,” Herzog said, as reported by The Jerusalem Post.
Present at the event were Stella Maris Monastery abbot Jean Joseph Bergara, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa, and Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III. Israel police inspector general Yaakov Shabtai also attended.
During the last week of July, dozens of members of the Breslov Hasidic movement clashed with Christians at Stella Maris in Haifa. Tensions were high when the Jewish extremists tried to storm the monastery and church. Following several attempts, the intruders (many of whom were minors) entered the outer courtyard of the Carmelite monastery, where they disrupted people at prayer. The monastery has since put up a fence to forestall future intrusions.
The monastery was founded by the Carmelites who, since the 12th century, have gathered in caves in Haifa to imitate the prophet and saint Elijah. According to tradition, Elijah’s cave is hidden beneath the church’s altar.
Israeli President Herzog’s gesture came after Jerusalem’s leading police officials met with Christian leaders at the Tower of David museum on Aug. 8 to address the uptick in hate crimes committed against Christians in the Holy City since the beginning of the year.
District commander Doron Turgeman had called for the “special” meeting to enhance coordination and strengthen ties between police of the Jewish state and the various churches.
“It was important for me to meet with you. We are committed and working for your security all year round,” Turgeman said at the conference, adding: “The cooperation between the police and the leaders of the Christian communities and representatives of the Christian faith is meaningful for us.”
“The reality presents us with many challenges, as well as despicable and shameful acts that deserve condemnation,” Turgeman said. “We are alert to this issue and address it with all the tools at our disposal.”
Jerusalem Old City police district commander Amir Cohen reported on police activities to stem the incidence of hate crimes against Christian clerics and churches. Cohen “expressed his full commitment to combating this condemnable phenomenon.”
“We are a police force for everyone and will continue to work to safeguard the peace and security of people of all faiths and denominations, residents of the city, and visitors,” Cohen said.
Christians have witnessed numerous incidents of vandalism and signs of disrespect since the beginning of the year.
Since January, Israeli police have investigated more than a dozen hate crimes committed against Christians and their churches in Jerusalem. This came despite controversy stirred by Jerusalem deputy mayor Aryeh King, who has refused to condemn the attacks, saying: “We support tourism but not missionaries.”
In January, dozens of Christian graves in the Old City district were vandalized. Two teens were later identified, arrested, and charged with vandalism. The attack was condemned by Christian leaders in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
This was followed by instances recorded on video of extremists spitting on Catholic priests and throwing rocks at edifices.
On July 9, Israeli President Herzog said that attacks on Christians are “a true disgrace.” At a memorial for Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, Herzog said: “I utterly condemn violence, in all its forms, directed by a small and extreme group, towards the holy places of the Christian faith, and against Christian clergy in Israel.”
“This includes spitting, and the desecration of graves and churches,” he added, noting that the phenomenon has been on the rise “in the last weeks and months especially.”
On June 6, Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa announced the establishment of a Documentation Center for Aggression against Christians, naming Yisca Harani to coordinate the effort. She has established a hotline to report instances of anti-Christian behavior.