Fire service forbids Christian pilgrims from celebrating Feast of Transfiguration

Authorities say church site on Mount Tabor cannot safely contain thousands of tourists, leading to cancellation of event for a second straight year

The Basilica of the Transfiguration, a Franciscan church located on Mount Tabor, December 31, 2016. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
The Basilica of the Transfiguration, a Franciscan church located on Mount Tabor, December 31, 2016. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Firefighting services forbade Christians from gathering on Mount Tabor in honor of the Feast of the Transfiguration on Saturday, preventing thousands of tourists from celebrating the holiday.

Authorities said that the fire-safety plan presented to them was inadequate and had apparently been copied from a different location without making the necessary adjustments. It comprised two fire extinguishers and an evacuation spot dozens of kilometers from the Greek Orthodox church on Mount Tabor. They also said the church itself had not been inspected for safety, that there was only one evacuation route and that the site lacked sufficient water sources and firebreaks.

Wadia Abu Nasser, one of the leaders of the Christian community in Israel, told Ynet that thousands of tourists had arrived in Israel for the event, which did not take place last year either.

“A few days ago, a meeting was held between the Orthodox Council in Nazareth and the authorities, and it was agreed that the event would take place,” Nasser told Ynet. “We expected that after the cancellation last year, the firefighters would present us with all the safety requirements during the year so that we could hold our religious ritual just as others do. Only at the last minute did they remember to inform us that it was again not approved.”

“This is an outrageous and totally unnecessary scandal that severely hurts Israel in the eyes of the Christian world,” Eyal Betzer, head of the Jezreel Valley Regional Council, told Ynet.

“I did everything I could for the sake of Israel because I was told that last year the event didn’t take place and caused a lot of backlash against the country. I wanted to save Israel from embarrassment.”

Illustrative: Orthodox Christian pilgrims hold wooden crosses as they gather outside the Holy Sepulchre church during the Holy Friday procession through the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 14, 2023. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

Betzer said that last week the Interior Ministry approved a fire-safety plan that he had commissioned, but that firefighting services rejected the plan a day before the holiday.

“They suddenly raised unreasonable and illogical demands that I had no way of fulfilling in such a short amount of time,” Betzer told Ynet.

“This is an international scandal and a violation of freedom of worship. This matter will serve those around the world who seek to tarnish Israel’s name by portraying the country as trying to harm Christians,” Yossi Fatael, head of the Incoming Tour Operators Association, told Ynet.

“There will surely be those who link this to the current government. Those who wish us ill will connect this to the denigration of Christians in Jerusalem,” Fatael added. “It is a severe systemic failure that such an order is issued on the day of pilgrimage to the mountain.”

There has been a noticeable rise in attacks against Christians in the Old City of Jerusalem and throughout Israel in recent months.

In 2019, a forest fire threatened the Roman Catholic Church of Transfiguration, which stands at the top of Mount Tabor.

The Feast of the Transfiguration is a Christian celebration that commemorates the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ, an event where Jesus is believed by worshipers to have revealed his divine glory to his disciples Peter, James and John.

While the New Testament does not state where the Transfiguration took place, Mount Tabor in northern Israel has traditionally been considered to be the site of the event.

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