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A Priest of Palestine

How a middle-aged soldier gave up the army to embrace the priesthood.

“I am the parish priest of a dying Church.” These are the words of Father George Rabadi, a Catholic parish priest in one of the world’s oldest Christian villages.

His village, called Taybeh, is proud of its history. When threatened with death, Christ himself took refuge among the families of Taybeh where he knew he would be safe (formerly, Taybeh was called Ephraim/JOHN 11:53-54). Villagers claim that Taybeh has been Christian since that time, and even the oldest inhabitant does not remember non-Christians having lived there.

In 1967, Taybeh had 3500 families. Now there are only 960. Every year more young men and women leave the village in search of educational opportunities and a better future in the Americas, Europe or Australia. Few return.

Father George is a man with a fascinating personal history. A tall and commanding figure, he was a Sergeant Major with General de Gaulle in the Free French Forces of Damascus during Hitler’s war. He spent eight and a half years with the Jordanian Frontier Force under the British. Later, he joined the Arab Legion and became a personal friend of General Glubb Pasha, the British officer who trained and led the army of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

No longer a soldier, George Rabadi has become a priest. He is also married with five children, and is the grandfather of ten. His family, which has seen him go from army man to cleric, has witnessed changes in his personality. As his wife comments, “When he was a Sergeant, he gave many orders. The children and I were a little afraid of him. As a priest he is different. One day I said to him, ‘Father, you are not the same. When you were an army man you were so strict with the children. Now you even wash the dishes. You have changed and have become so gentle.’”

With the emigration of so many villagers, the parish is shrinking and Father George and his family have become very poor. There is little money even for food. But according to Mrs. Rabadi, the family has peace and contentment. “During Mass George looks like an angel. Our lives have changed,” she says.

The story of how George Rabadi became a priest is both fascinating and unique. In 1949 he was the personal escort of Jordan’s King Abdullah. The Queen paid George and his family a visit one afternoon, and while taking the traditional cup of coffee Arabs offer all their guests, she remarked in surprise that the Rabadis had seven daughters but no son. The couple told her they had yearned for a son for many years, but to no avail. After the visit of the Queen, the Rabadis made a momentous decision which was to radically alter their lives. They went to the King and asked leave to travel with all their family to visit the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem. King Abdullah granted their request and provided them with a car and a gift of money.

In his halting English, Father George recalls solemnly how he and his family walked through the old city of Jerusalem, with his two youngest girls perched one on each of his big shoulders. “When I came to the Tomb,” he says, “I spoke to Jesus. ‘Give me a son, and I shall become a Father of your Church.’ After Mass was celebrated, I put 100 dinars ($250 U.S.) on the plate and took my children back across the Jordan.”

The next dramatic moment in George’s life was a tragedy. On Friday, July 20, 1951, Sergeant Major Rabadi was on escort duty during King Abdullah’s visit to the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. At 11:40 in the morning – the time for Muslim prayer – shots rang out in the Holy Place and the King fell to an assassin’s bullet. George, rushing to get an ambulance for the wounded King, was also shot – his hand and eye were injured.

King Abdullah died of his wounds. George Rabadi had to remain in a hospital for many months for he had lost a finger, and his injured eye was recovering very slowly. Finally, after what seemed to him an eternity, he returned home.

As George entered his house, his wife took him silently to a crib in their bedroom. “What is this?” he inquired. “It is a gift from God for you. The gift of a son,” she answered. Awestruck, George asked her when God had sent the boy. “On Friday, July 20 at 11:40 A.M.,” said his wife. George stood amazed. This was the precise day and time that he had lost his King in Jerusalem!

Sadness, however, was mixed with the joy. It seemed that God was giving the family a gift, but asking a sacrifice in return. Three of the Rabadi’s daughters had died mysteriously in their sleep on the night of the boy’s birth.

“All this is why I became a priest,” says Father George today.

During the years that followed the birth of his son, George kept his promise to become a priest a family secret. He was surprised, therefore, when Bishop Boutros Ashkar of the Melkite Church approached him one day and suggested “Why don’t you become a priest, George?” Finally, in 1963 George entered the seminary and on June 29, 1966 he was ordained a priest of the Melkite Rite (Greek Catholic) of Jerusalem. Three days later, Father George Rabadi and his family went to Taybeh where he was assigned as a parish priest.

The Melkites follow the Byzantine liturgy and have their own tradition of a married clergy as well as unmarried monks and bishops. Fr. George is, at present, the only married Catholic priest on the West Bank.

In addition to Fr. George’s Melkite parish, Taybeh has a Latin parish and a Greek Orthodox parish. During his years in the village, Father George has worked minor miracles in ecumenical relations. The people of all three parishes work and socialize well together.

Father George’s feeling that he is the pastor of a dying Church is due to the blight which has come over Taybeh in recent years. “Since the Arab-Israeli War of June 1967 we have not had a village feast. Now that Taybeh is occupied territory, people come to Church for Christmas, but they don’t have much joy. The young people easily receive visas from the military governor to go abroad, but if they apply to return to the village, there are often many complications and delays.”

Fr. George is certain that villagers would not leave if the churches could work together to create jobs. He points out that development is taking place in Israel because concerned Western Jews have donated money to build schools and modernize agricultural techniques, but that there is not enough assistance from Western Christians to do the same for the poor Christians who are living in occupied territory.

In addition to the need for work is the demand for housing. When his own house in Ajeloun fell down because he had no money for repairs, Fr. George was forced to patch it up himself. Today when young couples marry they have nowhere to live. “I cannot keep the young unless there is a housing project – a revolving loan fund to help build new homes for new families.”

The future of the Church in Taybeh is also at stake. “My children and grandchildren look at my life as a priest,” says Fr. George, “They see I am happy, but they know we are poor. They do not want to become priests.

In recent months this dedicated priest has not even a small income from Mass stipends. He showed me his neatly kept Mass book of intentions, and I saw that for 125 days he has said Mass without a stipend. The people are too poor. But without regular support there will be no new vocations and no future for the Church in Taybeh.

Today, Fr. George’s greatest joy is the progress of his son William – the son born of the promise he made to God at the Holy Sepulchre. The boy, now a tall handsome young man, recently received a scholarship to study medicine at Pennsylvania State University. His father has great hopes for him.

Soldier-priest Fr. George Rabadi and his family – like so many others in Palestine – have kept the faith alive in their troubled land which for centuries has been suffering persecutions and war. The Rabadis treasure their country, their homes and their history. But unless help comes soon, these people will find themselves left with no monuments to their past glory save a depleted population and an empty church.

Desmond Sullivan lives in Jerusalem; he travels extensively in the Middle East and acts as area correspondent for the worldwide National Catholic News Service, Washington, D.C.

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