Bethlehem Catholic Lives Christmas All Year

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) — A Bethlehem Franciscan said watching the actions of one of his parishioners reminds him of the meaning of his vocation.

Franciscan Father Rami Asakrieh said that, with their devotion to their faith and commitment to giving, Anton Mousallam and his family inspire him.

Because of the economic and political situation in Bethlehem, few people are able and willing to give of themselves as the Mousallam family does, Father Asakrieh told Catholic News Service.

“If somebody reminds you of your vocation because of his example, you have to be more faithful,” Father Asakrieh said. “It gives you hope and courage to be faithful to your vocation.”

Although many people feel the spirit of giving at Christmas, Father Asakrieh said the spirit of giving is something Anton Mousallam and his family live by every day of the year.

“Tony does not give up until he is able to help,” said Father Asakrieh, who works closely with Mousallam. He has his faults, said the priest, but “he is very modest, very honest and well-respected. He is a traditional Christian, a man of his word.”

It is not easy to speak to Mousallam, 54, about the charitable work that he does — he would rather speak about his grandfather who was organist at the Church of the Nativity and about how he taught his son and then daughter to play the grand organ as well. He will speak about his children’s educational achievements or about the importance of attending Mass and his sadness over the dwindling numbers of Christians in Bethlehem.

Emigration of Christians from Bethlehem is a subject dear to him, and he has seen the shrinking number of people who attend daily Mass with him. Today, there are 10 or 12 people at morning Mass, as opposed to the 30 or 35 people of few years ago.

When asked about his charitable work, the owner of MITours travel agency simply shrugs and notes that this was part of his upbringing: living out his faith.

“I am Christian, I am Catholic. I follow the Bible,” he said.

As a youth he and some friends accompanied the parish priest on his visits to orphanages and homes for the elderly, visiting patients and handing out cookies and sweets. It is a tradition he and his wife continue today, taking daily evening walks to visit the sick and homebound in his neighborhood. He wakes up early to complete his regular work, then spends part of his day bringing needed clothing or other items to families and orphanages, picking up medicines for later distribution.

He prefers to make the visits quietly, without fanfare or publicity, in order to protect the privacy and dignity of those he visits.

“It is in our blood. Our father always told us to keep in mind the people with less than we have, to count our blessings. We have to be an active presence or we are not Christians,” said Mousallam, who sets aside a regular tithing of his own income for his charitable work. “It is not just money; sometimes people need moral support.”

Once Anita Mousallam came home to find that her husband had given away their living room furniture to a mother of three who had no money to buy furniture and clothes for her family.

“Tony has always been generous,” Anita Mousallam said, smiling as she glanced as her husband. “I like to help people like my husband.”

He also gave the mother several of his own shirts from his closet.

“I have many shirts. I gave her five. It’s not the end of the world,” said Mousallam, also known as Tony or more traditionally as Abu Hanna — or the “father of Hanna,” referring to his eldest son. “If we give to others we will have more. That is how I was raised.”

An active member of St. Catherine Church, Mousallam uses his many connections and acquaintances in the community to help others. Sometimes people come to him for help; other times he hears through the grapevine about someone in need.

During the Palestinian uprising, when the Israeli army placed a siege on Bethlehem and on the Church of the Nativity, Jerusalem Christians wanting to help heard of Mousallam by word of mouth and turned to him to help them get supplies to the besieged community.

“Not everybody knows what [Mousallam] is doing,” said Fida Salsa, owner of Fida pharmacy, where Mousallam purchases medicines. “There are very good people in Bethlehem, but Abu Hanna is the best. He is so kind and generous.”

Mousallam distributes medicines, pays for hospital and utility bills, and university tuition fees. He is careful about doing his research before giving donations or funding.

On Christmas, part of his work is done in conjunction with Regina Palestinae, a new charitable organization set up by a British priest to help Palestinians of different faiths.

Mousallam’s son, Hanna, 32, who works with his father in the tourist agency and as a lecturer at Bethlehem University, said he and his two siblings are proud of the works that his parents do and have followed in their footsteps, each within their ability.

“They gave us the opportunity to learn what it truly means to have good habits, doing Christian work, and it was [ingrained] in us in a direct way,” he said.

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