08/28/2023, 10.38
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Bishop Nahra: Jewish extremist groups threaten peace on Mount Carmel

by Fady Noun

The vicar of the Latin patriarchate for Israel looks back on his first 16 months as bishop and delves into the tension around the Carmelite monastery. Peace and confessional balance endangered by a sect linked to Hasidism. The escalation degenerated into physical clashes between the parties, the police arrested a Christian leaving the provocateurs unpunished. The visit of President Herzog.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - Ordained auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem ust over a year ago (April 30, 2022), Msgr. Rafic Nahra, pastor of souls who preaches harmony in a context full of tension new vicar of the Latins in Israel, recently visited his family in Lebanon.

Among the many commitments scheduled for these days, he also found the time together with AsiaNews to take stock of his first episcopal year "in a nation which, like Lebanon, is in difficulty".

This first year has been marked in Haifa, its episcopal see, by disputes between the local Christian population, mainly Greek Catholics, and the followers of a sect linked to Hasidism which claims the right to pray in the Carmelite monastery, Stella Maris, on Mount Carmel.

Based on a Jewish tradition according to which Stella Maris would also host the tomb of the prophet Elisha, some members of the Hasidic branch of Wroclaw led by Rabbi Berland, already condemned by the justice of his country, have regularly come since last May to pray conspicuously and provocative in the area.

The tensions related to the visits finally led to a series of physical clashes with the Christian population of Haifa, following an escalation that even prompted Israeli President Isaac Herzog to go personally to the monastery. A presence, that of the head of state at Stella Maris, with the express purpose of trying to calm things down and extinguish further outbreaks of violence.

“I don't know exactly when all this started” explains Msgr. Nahra, but "since last May videos have been circulating showing ultra-religious Hasidim who began to frequent the Stella Maris monastery".

Naturally, he continues, “our places of worship are open to everyone, but these people came in a different way, in a showy and provocative way. Some even entered the church to kiss the rock of a cave where, according to tradition, the prophet Elijah came to pray and above which the main altar had been built".

This fact, he adds, which "was often repeated, exasperated some Christians in Haifa". The turning point came when a young man advised the group to leave and, following his words, "an altercation ensued".

Those present filmed the scene and the man was arrested, then released. The incident deeply angered the local Christian population, outraged by the fact that the police, who at first remained passive, arrested the man who asked the provocateurs to leave.

Instead, leaving the field free - and undisturbed to act - those who had given rise to the tensions and exasperated spirits. "From that moment on - continues the vicar - a permanent presence was formed in the place, in front of the ultra-religious who arrived in ever greater numbers, sometimes by bus and in the middle of the night, at two or three in the morning. In response, starting from that juncture it was decided to surround the monastery with a metal fence, so that anyone who crosses it is guilty of breaking and entering".

The reassurances provided by the Israeli president, who arrived with the police chief, did not help or at least were not enough to completely reassure the bishop. The prelate reports that the ultra-religious have proposed a temporary suspension of visits to Mount Carmel, but at the same time claim the right to set up a place of prayer for them too in the disputed area.

"However - he underlines - their words are even more worrying, because they are also asking for the introduction of a transport service by bus between Jerusalem and the Stella Maris, which they want to turn into an important place of pilgrimage". In short, "the local [Christian] population fears that Orthodox Jews want to get their hands on the holy place."

The bishop of Haifa is well aware that the reaction of the Christians of Haifa has been strongly based on identity, in a geographical environment traditionally known for his moderation.

However, the fact remains that, beyond the measures taken by the police and the responses of the local municipality, a fundamental problem could remain in the long run. The prelate is convinced that there is a question of education and mentality that has been addressed, changed and resolved.

Bishop Nahra must also face another problem, linked to Christian schools whose elementary classes do not receive sufficient subsidies to be able to provide their services. The prelate sees this as a "serious threat" to the quality of teaching "in our Catholic schools, which see more and more teachers, often among the best, threatening to abandon them or to have already left".

In addition to the funds, Msgr. Nahra also knows that his work requires vision, drive and perseverance. After accompanying the young Christians of his diocese to the World Youth Day in Lisbon, he is preparing to travel to Marseilles at the end of September for the meeting on the Mediterranean convened by Pope Francis (scheduled for September 17-24).

During this meeting, the Church "will reflect - he concludes - on how to make the Mare Nostrum not a cemetery or an impassable border, but a bridge of civilization and a place of hope".

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