St. John in the Desert Monastery closes its gates following assault on father superior
by Gil Zohar
Sunday, 14 October 2007
One of the most serene holy places in the vicinity of Jerusalem was recently compelled to restrict visits as a result of vandalism, bigotry and theft.
The Franciscan-run St. John in the Desert Monastery, which includes a convent, now only permits Christian pilgrims and secular groups led by a licensed tour guide. Reservations are required to visit the six-hectare Judean Hills shrine, which enjoys a spectacular location amidst heavily forested ancient agricultural terraces. The change in policy follows an altercation there last month involving a group of some 30 Jews described as "settlers" who assaulted the monastery's Father Superior Sergio Olmedo and then trashed the pilgrimage destination.
The monastery, located near Moshav Even Sapir on Hwy. 386, is dedicated to the life of John the Baptist. The shrine is built around the grotto where Christian tradition holds John and his mother lived, and the still-bubbling spring from which they drank. The Arabic name 'Ain al-Habis meaning Spring of the Hermit preserves the ancient tradition tying the place to John.
Elisabeth is buried on the grounds in a tomb that shows Byzantine, Crusader and 20th century construction. A group of nuns lead by Sister Maatje, originally from Neuchatel, Switzerland, live beside the tomb.
St. John in the Desert has long been a favorite hiking destination for Jerusalemites, some of whom combine a visit there with a swim at the nearby Sataf Nature Preserve. Some of those Israeli visitors also came to the 'Ain al-Habis spring – which serves as a baptismal pool – to exploit it as a mikveh. In the spirit of ecumenicalism, Father Sergio permitted the parallel usage.
Unfortunately, he said, over his five years living there "the quality of the visitors has changed." Many of today's Israeli hikers are disrespectful of the site's holiness. "It's a place for meditation and prayer," said the Santiago, Chile-born monk, who has resided in Israel for 14 years.
Some visitors would hop the fence and trespass, armed with guns, he said, reciting a litany of abuse, boorishness and desecration. Women would immodestly wear bikinis at the baptismal pool while men would parade naked. Some would swim in the carp pond, notwithstanding the brackish water, and then wash off in the baptismal pool. Visitors would litter, and not clean up after their pet dogs defecated. Money would be pilfered from the alms collections box.
Not least of the disrespectful behavior was simply talking loudly, and preventing the monks from carrying out their daily routine of prayer.
St. John in the Desert is not just a monastery, explained Father Sergio, but a "hermitage, a place of silence and spiritual rejuvenation."
The final straw on the proverbial camel's back came in the afternoon of Friday, August 17. A group of about 30 men, some carrying machine guns, forced their way past the gate, demanded to use the pool as a mikveh and refused to leave, Father Sergio recounted. "They started to say 'Eretz Israel is our land, and you have to go.' They were very aggressive. They spit at me. They said 'You killed my family.'"
In the ensuing scuffle Father Sergio managed to photograph some of his assailants with his cell phone camera. They were wearing kippot and tzitzit, he noted. Some were dressed in orange in the fashion of activists protesting last summer's withdrawal from Gush Katif. Some were speaking English, and others Hebrew.
Father Sergio, still badly shaken, characterized the group as "fanatics". "I've seen these [kind of] people in Hebron."
Before finally leaving, the enraged crowd went on a mini-pogrom, breaking water pipes, smashing potted plants, and destroying property. Father Sergio and the other monks subsequently found direction signs leading to the property had been vandalized so that the word "Franciscan" read "racist".
Father Sergio lodged a complaint with Israel Police and provided them with his digital photos. No arrests have been made at the time of this writing. The pool remains padlocked.