Hundreds protest Hasidic pilgrimages to Haifa monastery

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Some 300 people protested Sunday at a Christian monastery in Haifa against what they say is a recent trend of Jewish pilgrims praying at the site.

It came after a Christian man was arrested last week for assaulting two Jewish men at the Stella Maris Monastery located on the slopes of Mount Carmel. Though the site is linked to the Biblical prophet Elijah, members of a Jewish Hasidic sect say it also is home to the tomb of his disciple the prophet Elisha.

During the rally, demonstrators protested against prayer visits by Hasidim. According to Hebrew media reports, the Jewish visitors are from a subgroup of the Breslov Hasidic community, the Shuvu Bonim sect led by convicted sex offender and swindler Rabbi Eliezer Berland.

Protesters told Ynet that they support coexistence in Haifa, which has a mixed Jewish and Arab population, but that the site is holy to the Christian community.

They threatened to expel the Shuvu Bonim members if they again tried to pray at the monastery.

Protesters called on Israel Police to intervene and prevent the Hasidim from entering the site.

People gather for a protest at the Stella Maris Monastery in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, June 18, 2023. (Flash90)

Police said in a statement Sunday that in an effort to reduce tensions, a meeting was held by Haifa police, Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem and city hall officials, and church leaders.

“During the meeting, the parties promoted a number of solutions and determined ways of working and cooperating in order to prevent the recurrence of acts of this type, and to prevent any friction or acts of violence,” police said in a statement.

At the meeting, it was decided to designate the monastery as a “hot spot” that requires swift action in the case of any incidents as well as increased patrols in the area “both in order to prevent tensions in the monastery and in order to preserve the normal structure of life in the city of Haifa.”

Wadie Abunassar, a spokesman and adviser to churches in the Holy Land, told Ynet that “it grieves us” that police investigated the Christian man who ejected the praying Jews but didn’t “locate and arrest those who came here to make a provocation.”

He said that during the talks church officials urged that an end be put to the visits “or things could get out of control.”

Abunassar claimed that archaeological explorations have not found any evidence that could be tied to the period that Elijah is believed to have lived.

“Elijah is also important to us,” he said. “Believe me, if we found his tomb we would give him all due respect.”

He warned that the “old wives’ tales” of the Shuvu Bonim pilgrims could “set the city alight.”

People gather for a protest at the Stella Maris Monastery in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, June 18, 2023. (Flash90)

On Friday police arrested a 53-year-old resident of Haifa for attacking a Hasidic man who arrived to pray at the site. A video of the incident was shared on social media and the suspect of the attack was eventually released under restrictions.

That incident came after two other ultra-Orthodox men were filmed praying inside the monastery a couple of weeks ago in what was seen as a provocation, Ynet reported.

A video circulated on social media showing the Jewish worshipers on the grounds of the monastery, with text in Arabic describing the men as “Jewish settlers” who were “breaking into one of the holiest Christian sites.”

The language appeared similar to claims about the Jewish presence on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which is the holiest site for Jews, and houses the third-holiest mosque in Islam. Jewish visits to the site, and an increasing push to allow Jewish prayer there, often inflame tensions in the capital and beyond.

In a video said to be from the initial Haifa incident, one of the men says he is praying at the Christian site due its connection to the prophet Elijah.

The incidents in Haifa came amid increasing reports of Jews harassing Christians in Jerusalem. The chief Sephardic rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar, condemned the harassment last week.

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