GALILEE (LifeSiteNews) — Israeli police blocked thousands of Orthodox Christians from celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor late last week despite prior coordination with authorities having already been completed.
“We received clear answers two weeks ago saying we’d have no problem,” Basim Asfur, chairman of the Nazareth Orthodox Christian Community Council, told Haaretz.
According to his account, the council and local police had come to an agreement to host the event even though it had been cancelled last year. “There was no indication that the mountain would be closed on Friday evening and Saturday morning due to safety concerns related to the large number of people attending,” he said.
An estimated 3,000 Christian domestic and international pilgrims—from such nations as Greece, Romania, and Serbia—were turned back after Israel’s Fire and Rescue Authority notified police on Thursday that it was unable to approve of this larger gathering at the Greek Orthodox Church due to unsafe conditions including along the winding ascending road leading to the churches on the top of the mountain.
Christian tradition has held that Mt. Tabor is the location where Jesus Christ led the three apostles, Peter, James, and John before being transfigured before them, revealing his divinity with his face shining like the sun, his clothes becoming white as snow, and Moses and Elijah appearing and conversing with him (See, Mt. 17: 1-9).
A Roman Catholic church and a Greek Orthodox church are on top of the mountain. While Catholics celebrate the Transfiguration on August 6, the Greek calendar celebrates it on August 18-19.
“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.
Betzer affirmed that Israel’s Internal Ministry had approved the event the previous week and charged the Fire and Rescue authorities of making irrational demands following their last minute notification. They “suddenly raised unreasonable and illogical demands that couldn’t be met in the short time remaining before the event.” he said.
Haaretz further reports that the “safety issues noted by firefighting services have always been present, but only in recent years have fire and rescue services begun to add obstacles to holding the event.”
Furthermore, most of the demands made by the fire safety authorities do not fall within the authority of the churches. According to the outlet, they include “the lack of firebreaks between the church and the surrounding woods, the absence of an evacuation route to serve as an alternative to the single road to the top, the lack of water pipes in parking lots, the absence of firefighting equipment, and the extreme weather conditions expected to prevail during the celebrations.”
“The deficiencies noted in the letter are not under our responsibility,” said Asfur. “We have no authority to address them. The state does. We can’t widen the road or take down trees. Only state authorities can.”
Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to churches in the Holy Land, commented that in such a situation, “One has to find the middle road between safety concerns and respect for the rights of worshipers wishing to pray at the site, between a sweeping denial of their access to a place of worship and their religious freedom.”
Haaretz reported that “only a few dozen pilgrims managed to reach the church, with thousands of others forced to remain at the foot of the mountain. Some 3,000 Christians had arrived in Israel specifically to participate in the Feast of the Transfiguration celebrations.”
The Internal Ministry’s event producer, Romi Hai Ami, confirmed that the “demands made by firefighting services were absurd because there has never been infrastructure meeting their requirements there.“ Additionally, “the budget that was allocated could never bridge the gap between these requirements and the ongoing incompetence in improving safety conditions on the mountain.”
“There is no international-minded thinking about what this news will do overseas, with Israeli police preventing Christians from reaching the mountain and holding their religious ceremonies,” he reflected.
The fire and safety authority issued a statement that “the event organizers submitted a request to hold the event only on August 14, accompanied by a safety plan with many flaws that have still not been corrected.”
A statement from the police emphasized that since “approval was not granted” for the event from the firefighting services, they “therefore had a duty to prevent the event from happening since it endangered the public.”
In recent years, but especially since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government was sworn into office last December, incorporating extremist Jewish leaders as part of the majority coalition, Christians have undergone more frequent attacks, harassments and interference from those espousing “Jewish supremacist” views.
In December 2021, Christian bishops in the Holy Land issued a letter sounding an alarm that radical groups in the region continue to violently attack Christians and their churches “in a systematic attempt to drive” them “out of Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land.”
Furthermore, such crimes against Christians in Israel and Palestine are virtually never solved or properly adjudicated. “The police try to paint each attack as something isolated and try to paint the attackers as mentally unstable,” Amir Dan, spokesman for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, told The Times of Israel in March. “In doing so, the police remove themselves from all responsibility.”
And last Friday’s blocking of Christians from Mt. Tabor, preventing them from celebrating the Transfiguration, has not been the only case of Israeli authorities using questionable pretenses for interfering with the religious freedom of minority Christians in the region.
Last April, when Orthodox Christians celebrated Easter in Jerusalem, law enforcement authorities moved to restrict access to the Holy Fire Ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre due to “a necessary safety requirement.” They demanded that Church authorities issue invitations limiting attendance to around 30% of what turnout has been in previous years.
At that time Christian leaders called such demanded restrictions “unreasonable,” “unprecedented,” “heavy-handed,” and unnecessary for an annual ceremony which has been held in the same way for centuries. As a result, these bishops and priests invited all who wished to attend as usual, “leaving the authorities to act as they will.”
They also charged that statements the police had made on this conflict to be “incorrect… a complete misrepresentation of the facts” and “categorically misguided and false.”
Ironically, police barricades set up in the Old City to prevent Christians from accessing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre caused a far more dangerous situation, with breakdowns and police at least at times using violence to prevent the faithful from exercising their right to freely worship at the tomb of Jesus Christ.