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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Day in the Life of an Israeli Priest

Fifteen minutes before the liturgy, the pews at Sts. Peter and Paul Church are nearly full as people of all ages arrive. Anticipation builds as the parishioners wait for the Rev. Androwas Bahus to finish his prayers of preparation — they in their Sunday best, he in white and gold vestments.

Finally, the priest switches on the lights of the recently refurbished church, the glow of chandeliers illuminating dozens of gilded icons on the wall depicting the life of Jesus.

The parishioners straighten up as the Melkite Greek Catholic Divine Liturgy begins. They smile when the parish’s many children gather before the priest for a blessing, and listen intently to the homily, focusing on the importance of quietly helping the needy, and placing trust in God.

“Create a relationship with your Father in heaven,” Father Bahus says. “We know that when we give, we receive.”

At the end of the Eucharist, the priest urges his parishioners to attend a solidarity rally that afternoon at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes on the Sea of Galilee, which, just days earlier, had been badly damaged in an arson attack.

In the seven years since becoming parish priest in the city of Shefa-‘Amr — a small city in the Galilee with a mixed population of Christians, Muslims and Druze — Father Bahus has inspired his parishioners to move beyond their fears and work toward the good of their small, tight-knit community.

Under his guidance, the city’s Melkite Greek Catholics — who, along with Christians from other denominations, comprise a quarter of the city’s population of 40,000 — have made great strides in renewing faith and community. By pooling its resources and enthusiasm, the parish has renovated and restored their Ottoman-era stone church, built a thriving community center and supported church-run schools, the budgets of which have been slashed in recent years by the Israeli government.

According to parishioners, the parish has experienced a revival ever since Father Bahus arrived. People speak highly of his enthusiasm, charisma, activism and determination to stem the tide of Christian emigration from Israel. They admire his efforts to foster communal responsibility and a deep sense of belonging.

“Abuna has changed everything,” says Amal Mishael, using the Arabic term for “father.” A middle-aged community member, Ms. Mishael was visiting her 82-year-old grandmother, Nadia Shihab, during the priest’s weekly communion call. He makes roughly 75 such home visits per week to those not well enough to attend parish liturgies.

“It keeps me fit,” he says, referring to the hundreds of stairs he climbs in the process.

Seated alongside more than a dozen of her relatives, who spend every Sunday afternoon together in Ms. Shihab’s spotless home, Ms. Mishael says that until Father Bahus took up his post, her mother had not been to church in a decade. “Now she goes to church every week to hear his sermon. Now there’s not an empty seat in the church during the liturgy. He has returned the faith to the people.”

Aida Gamal, another relative of Ms. Shihab, compliments him on his warmth and compassion as she tries to get him to eat another sweet. “We are grateful to have you as our abuna.”

As he heads out the door and to his next stop, Father Bahus says such tributes are gratifying, but ultimately it is not his efforts but those of his flock that deserve recognition.

“It is their work and their generosity sustaining the parish. Whatever the need, the people here are always ready. I’m just the engine,” he insists.

Born in the northern Israeli coastal city of Acre in 1969, Father Bahus hails from a deeply religious Catholic family, which over the years has produced 16 priests and one patriarch. His father, formerly the director of the Melkite school in Acre, was also the parish cantor, a role of considerable importance in the Byzantine Christian tradition.

Drawn to the church at an early age, he entered the junior seminary in Nazareth at the age of 14.

He recalls how, when he was 18, his parents instructed him to get a university degree instead of going straight into the priesthood. He honored their wishes but, drawn to his calling a year later, asked the advice of the late Archbishop Maximus Salloum of Galilee.

“The bishop told me, ‘We are waiting for you; prepare to go to Rome to study.’

“When I told my parents, my father said, ‘Wait 15 days and if you feel the same way, then go.’ My mother said ‘No way, forget it; I want to see you married.’” Although Melkite Greek Catholic priests are permitted to marry before entering the priesthood, they cannot marry after receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders.

By September 1989 he was studying Italian in Rome. Soon, he entered the Greek Pontifical College of St. Athanasius as a seminarian. He earned an undergraduate degree followed by a graduate degree in philosophy.

During his fifth year in the seminary, he and his fellow seminarians faced a familiar question.

“The seminary asks whether we wish to marry before we become priests,” Father Bahus says, noting some 75 percent of the Melkite priests in the archeparchy are married.

Ultimately, he declined, and today says he has no regrets.

“When you make important decisions, it’s important never to look back.”

Finally, in 1996, he was ordained a priest.

Upon his return to Israel, the newly ordained priest asked Archbishop Maximus to permit him to lead the parish in Acre.

“He had asked other priests to serve there, but it is a very small place, with only 400 in the Greek Catholic community. The building had been abandoned for 20 years and there was no resident priest.”

The archbishop granted the request on the condition that, during the week, he also serve as vice director of the St. Joseph School in Nazareth.

The fresh-faced priest brought his trademark enthusiasm back to Acre, where he made it a priority to renovate the church and reinvigorate his childhood parish, small though it was.

Then, seven years ago, he assumed his position as parish priest in Shefa-‘Amr, where he celebrates the Divine Liturgy three times on Sundays, among other priestly duties — providing spiritual support to his parishioners, visiting the sick and presiding at baptisms, weddings and funerals.

Father Bahus also celebrates the liturgy once a week in Acre and spends three to four days a week in the city of Haifa, where he serves as the chief financial officer in the archbishop’s office. Three or four times a week he celebrates the liturgy at the Sisters of Nazareth School in Shefa-‘Amr, where he serves as the school’s spiritual leader.

“There are 74,000 Melkite believers in the Galilee who attend 30 churches,” he says of the region he serves, which is home to nearly half of Israel’s 162,000 Christians. “There are another 5,000 to 6,000 believers in Jerusalem and the West Bank. We are the largest church in Shefa-‘Amr.”

The priest says he spent his first year in Shefa-‘Amr “bringing people back to church.” Opening a new community center, called Home of Our Lady, was an important part of the process. Inside its modern, airy spaces, community members host film nights, youth activities, conferences, school meetings and memorial services.

As a general guideline, he asks every family to make a monthly donation of about $30, both to improve the parish and make the community feel more invested in what happens here. Some of that money has helped repair and restore the formerly sagging church building, which is now a place where couples are proud to hold their weddings.

“Israel is perhaps the best place in the Middle East to be a Christian, but who knows what the future will bring?” the priest reflects as he cuts up tomatoes and cucumbers for a salad in the rectory kitchen during a rare hour of downtime.

“These attacks on our churches in Israel,” he says, referring to recent arsonist attacks, “show me that anything is possible. The Middle East is not a secure place for Christians.”

But instead of feeling helpless in the face of political forces beyond their control, he continues, Christians — especially the young, who often move abroad — need to feel a sense of empowerment.

“Following the attack on the Church of the Multiplication, our young people, the Facebook people, said to me, ‘What are you waiting for, Abuna?’ So other church leaders from a variety of denominations and I called on the people to pray and also to take action.“

Father Bahus acknowledges the region’s religious leaders can fall behind the curve.

“In this case, our communities pushed for a reaction so we organized the rally at the torched church.”

As with minorities all over the world, he says, “We must work to protect our presence. Emigration has been a problem. Many of our young people study abroad, in Europe and North America, and they find a nice, quiet way of life. Our challenge is: How do we bring them back?”

The priest says one of the problems facing young Israeli Christian professionals, and Israeli Arabs in general, is the undercurrent of racism and discrimination in the workplace, despite its illegality.

Although Christian Israelis are among the most educated people in the country, and can serve as a bridge because they speak both Arabic and Hebrew fluently, some Jewish employers refuse to hire Arabs.

“We have integrated ourselves into Israeli society. We work in every hospital, in education, in pharmacies. Our young people are looking for jobs with autonomy, where they don’t have to ask for an individual to give them a job.”

Walking to the chapel of the Sisters of Nazareth School, he suggests the best way to keep young Christians connected to their faith and the Holy Land is to provide a strong Christian education.

“Our schools are perhaps the single most important tool in shaping a Christian identity, where our children are brought up in a totally Christian atmosphere. It’s the key to our survival.”

Unfortunately, he says, the Israeli government has slashed the budgets of semi-private schools, including Christian ones.

“So we have been forced to charge the parents higher tuition and many of our parents cannot afford to pay.” With few external sources of funding, the burden falls largely on the parishioners.

As with other Christians in Israel, Father Bahus says, Melkite Greek Catholics have a rich and complex identity.

“I consider myself an Arab Palestinian Christian and Israeli citizen. It is a mixture — a cocktail, if you will. We are all of these things, one inseparable from the other.”

As Arabs, he says, “we have the same language as Muslims, the same culture and the same problems.”

Even so, the priest acknowledges there have been violent exchanges between Christians and Druze in Shefa-‘Amr in the past. A formal truce between the warring families led by the city’s faith leaders put an end to the hostilities.

“This land is holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews, and there are some sick extremists who want us to be divided against each other. Our challenge now is to learn how to live together, to consciously decide how to live together.”

Later in the afternoon, Father Bahus stands before a bride and groom in the packed church, joined at the altar by the Rev. Fuad Dagher, the parish priest of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Shefa-‘Amr.

Father Dagher says he is attending out of respect for Father Bahus and the couple, both Greek Catholics.

“Father Androwas is a leader who is open-minded. He has a great heart for ecumenism.”

Ecumenism among the various churches in the Middle East is so strong that the Melkites celebrate Easter according to the Julian calendar used by the Orthodox churches, and the Orthodox celebrate Christmas on 25 December, the Gregorian calendar used by the Catholic and Protestant churches.

“This is our way for us, as a minority, to show Christian unity to the larger majority,” Father Dagher says.

Sheikh Ahmad Abbed al Wahab Hassan, a Shefa-‘Amr imam, describes the priest as “a partner” who encourages interreligious cooperation.

“We come together during the bad times and the happy times,” he says.

“We are a community.”

Fueled by this enduring sense of community, 20 years after entering religious life, Father Bahus, now 46, says he is as determined as ever.

“I will continue on the path of our Lord Jesus Christ, serving my church and my people with the grace that God has given me.”

Jerusalem-based journalist Michele Chabin has written for USA TODAY, National Catholic Register, Jewish Journal and ONE.

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