'Why can’t we have this one place to ourselves?'

At a Haifa church, Jewish pilgrims test coexistence strained by painful history

Haredi visitors outside Stella Maris say they want to pray near the presumed burial site of Prophet Elisha; churchgoers say it’s just another attempt to intimidate Christians

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

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

As Christian worshipers stream in for prayer at the Stella Maris church, they are flanked by two small but conspicuous groups of young men standing on either side of the main entrance.

The men are not there for moral support.

They are an impromptu security force, made up of volunteers who have been standing guard here during services in recent weeks because of a dispute with Haredi Jews who have begun to come and pray outside this iconic church in Haifa.

Seen locally as provocateurs bent on intimidating Arabs, the Jewish pilgrims say they merely want to worship outside what they believe is the burial place of Prophet Elisha, a biblical figure from the 8th century BCE and the disciple and successor of Elijah.

“This is for our own safety,” said one of the young Christian men, who works at his father’s popular falafel shop in Haifa, of the security posse flanking the entrance. He spoke to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity, saying, “If things escalate, I don’t want your article to establish some record about me.”

Things did escalate just days later: On Sunday, Christian worshipers chased away from the area around the entrance to the church several dozen Haredi Jews from the Breslov Hasidic movement.

It was the latest in a string of attempts this summer by Breslovers to pray near the church, which has recently been added to the itineraries of several organizers of pilgrimages to the graves of Jewish sages.

The developments around Stella Maris are rare disturbances highlighting historic grudges in a city where deadly fighting between Jews and Arabs in 1948 led to a massive flight of Arab residents but that has since become a rare model for harmonious coexistence by followers of the three main Abrahamic faiths and beyond.

Churchgoers at Stella Maris dismiss the religious reasons cited by the Jewish pilgrims as a flimsy pretext for intimidating Christians, allegedly with the tacit support of the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A member of the Stella Maris church parish surveys his surroundings at the start of a service on July 20, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The Jewish pilgrims, meanwhile, decry the hostility of the Christians as intolerance and hooliganism, claiming they are backed up by the left-leaning mayor, Einat Kalish, and the media. Kalish’s office did not immediately respond to requests for a reaction on these claims.

The pilgrimages have led to violence in at least two cases, which ended with only minor injuries. In the scuffle on Sunday, men from inside and around the Stella Maris church shoved about 60 Haredi men away as the ultra-Orthodox Jews prayed outside the church.

Police separated the Haredim and the Christians and briefly detained several Jewish worshipers. In a previous scuffle this month, police arrested a Christian for assaulting a Haredi man near the church, and patrol vehicles have taken up stations opposite the church throughout this week.

A worshiper prays at the Stella Maris church in Haifa, Israel on June 18, 2023. (Flash90)

On Monday, several hundred Christians held a vigil outside the church. It turned into a protest against the pilgrimages, with an unauthorized blockage of a main traffic artery.

“The Jews who come here are not about Judaism or religion at all,” said Father William Abu Shqar, the director of the office of the Greek-Catholic Bishop of Haifa. “Because of what’s going on with the government, they’re coming out all over the place. Jewish worship never existed here; it’s made up to gain a foothold in this place that’s been sacred to Christians for centuries,” Abu Shqar, 66, told The Times of Israel.

Abu Shqar is not alone in identifying a trend of harassment and hostility toward Christians. Several leaders and followers of the faith have said that since the new government came to power at the end of last year, they have been seeing increased expressions of hostility, mainly spitting on the ground in their direction, by devout Jews in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Father William Abu Shqar, left, and a priest pray at the Stella Maris Church in Haifa, Israel on July 18, 2023. (Flash90)

The young falafel vendor at Stella Maris threatened retaliation if Jewish pilgrimages to Stella Maris continued.

“If this continues, we will have to target faith [sites] too, to preserve our security. We want to defend ourselves, our land, and our church,” said the vendor. The pilgrimages have “shaken the feeling of security and safety of Christians in Haifa and enhanced our feeling of being discriminated against,” he said.

Asked if he’s angry, the falafel vendor replied: “You bet I’m angry. I’m angry about a lot of things. But we never wanted to intervene. Haifa never used to be like this. It still isn’t — Jews and Arabs live here side by side in peace. Next time they come, we will make pork BBQ and have them eat it. Alternatively, you think I can’t train a pig to shit inside synagogues?”

But other churchgoers downplayed the issue. “What, the Jewish worshipers outside? The more the merrier,” said one man who came to Stella Maris last week with his son and wife to light candles in the church’s grotto. “It doesn’t bother me if they pray outside: Ahlan wa sahlan,” he said, using an Arabic-language phrase that is often used to greet a guest. The man declined to be named.

An Arab-Israeli couple document their visit on Prophet Elijah Festivity on July 20, 2023 to the grotto of the Stella Maris church in Haifa, Israel. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The grotto is one of two places in Haifa known as the Cave of Elijah, and associated with that prophet, according to the Book of Kings of the Hebrew Bible. Many Christians believe Elijah prayed at the grotto inside the Stella Maris church, a 19th-century structure whose striking white facade and prominent bell tower crown a steep incline of the Carmel Mountain range overlooking the Mediterranean.

Inside, an impressive and ornate chapel with frescos of biblical scenes focused on the Virgin Mary wows visitors who may not expect such splendor when they first step into the dark and relatively small interior.

Stella Maris has a symbolic significance for its beauty and age but also for its connection to the area: It is the home base for the ancient Catholic order known as the Carmelites, named for the mountain. Each year, thousands of Christians ascend to Stella Maris in a ceremonial procession. Hundreds of foreign tourists visit the church each month.

A member of the Stella Maris church parish in Haifa, Israel removes wax from candles lit by worshipers on July 20, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Ayman Odeh, a Haifa-based Knesset lawmaker who heads the predominantly Arab Hadash-Ta’al political alliance, issued veiled threats of violence of his own on Sunday during a speech in the Israeli parliament.

“I want to tell all of you: You don’t belong in Haifa. In our city, Haifa, you do not belong,” Odeh said. He did not explain who exactly doesn’t belong there, but he issued a threat. “Either you deal with the hooligans, or we will,” warned Odeh, whose family is Muslim but who attended a Christian school growing up.

Father William Abu Shaqr concludes a service at the Stella Maris church in Haifa, Israel on July 20, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Breslovers who visited the church say the hooligans are in fact the Christians preventing Jewish pilgrims from praying outside the church.

“There are multiple sources indicating the church as the grave of Prophet Elisha,” said Benjamin Israel, a 48-year-old Jerusalemite. Israel visited Stella Maris with several dozen other Breslovers on Sunday and said the locals had assaulted the Jewish pilgrims.

“We were standing off and away from the entrance, praying quietly. Suddenly dozens of Arabs attacked, shoved us, and wounded two people,” said Israel.

Christians at Stella Maris said they believed the pilgrims wanted to enter the church despite a prohibition in halacha, Jewish Orthodox law, against setting foot inside a non-Jewish house of worship. Several interviewees cited this as cause for their suspicion that the pilgrimages are about dominance rather than worship.

Worshipers leave the Stella Maris church in Haifa, Israel, after a service on July 20, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

This was fueled by the actions of two pilgrims who earlier this month were filmed knocking on the church’s doors, apparently in a bid to enter. Several Breslovers said those pilgrims were indeed in violation of halacha. “The rabbinic authorities of our generation have spoken out against entering a non-Jewish house of worship and so we oppose this,” said Menachem Malka, a Breslov follower.

Benjamin Israel, the pilgrim, said that Breslovers are seeking “no change to the status quo” at Stella Maris. “We don’t want to enter, we don’t want a seating area, we don’t need water and refreshments, just let us stand and pray sometimes outside the church on public ground. Is that too much to ask?” he demanded. Police’s failure to allow prayers by Jews outside the church was “discrimination against Haredim and a violation of basic freedom of worship,” Israel said.

Asked how come Breslovers began frequenting the site only in recent months, he replied: “Because you can’t see the actual burial place, it’s a less obvious choice than other gravesites. But it’s in the literature and we’re getting around to it now. We’re not going away.”

Sitting on a folding chair outside the church, Hanna Suheila, an 82-year-old regular worshiper at Stella Maris, views the dispute as part of a Jewish attempt to dispossess Arabs in Haifa, which saw an exodus of Arab residents in 1948.

Hanna Suheila, a worshiper at Stella Maris church in Haifa, Israel, on July 20, 2023 outside the western entrance, where Jewish pilgrims have attempted to pray. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Today, the predominantly Jewish city has about 285,000 residents, of whom about 35,000 are Arabs, who are divided more or less equally between Christians and Muslims.

“They take everything — they dig under the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem looking for Jewish graves, but they found nothing,” said Suheila, offering a disputed but widely held understanding among Arabs of archaeological excavations and restoration works in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“We love the Jews, they are our cousins,” said Suheila, who was seven when tens of thousands of Arabs, most of them Muslim, left Haifa as local Jews took it over from British Mandate authorities during the first phase of Israel’s Independence War. “But why do the Jews take the churches?” she demanded. “Why can’t we have this one place to ourselves?”

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