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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

A Town Named ‘Good’

Taybeh’s Christians persevere in spite of occupation and emigration

In the late afternoon on Holy Saturday, hundreds of residents from Taybeh, a village in the West Bank, 12 miles north of Jerusalem, gather on the main street. As they do every year, they await the arrival of the Holy Fire, which is brought in a lantern directly from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. An ancient celebration, it involves the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, who enters the structure enshrining the tomb of Christ, mysteriously receives the flame, exits the tomb and shares it with the throngs of faithful carrying tapers outside.

At last, a white sedan appears on the horizon, proceeding slowly across the village limits and into the eager crowd. On the car’s roof sits 10–year–old Philip Khoury. He displays a placard high above his head marked with his own handwriting. Transcribed in Arabic and English is a passage from the Gospel of John: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

The boy’s father, Ibrahim Philip Khoury, rides in the front passenger seat. Dressed in the Taybeh scouts’ uniform, the man holds the lantern with the Holy Fire. Each year, the scouts honor one of its members with the task of bringing the Holy Fire home to the village.

The car moves slowly through the crowd, stopping a short distance ahead of them, where the heads of the village’s three churches stand bearing large tapers. Orthodox Father Daoud Philip Khoury, Melkite Greek Catholic Father Jack Abed and Latin (Roman) Catholic Father Ra’ed Abu Sahliyeh warmly greet the boy and his father, who lights each priest’s taper from the lantern.

Once the three priests have received the Holy Fire, the scout drum and pipe band commences a familiar tune. On cue, the villagers gather behind their pastors and solemnly sing along with the music. The priests then lead the villagers to their respective churches. At midnight, they will all celebrate Easter together, but using their distinctive rites.

This village–wide, ecumenical celebration fazes no one. Within Palestine’s tiny Christian community, a sense of solidarity among Christian faithful of all traditions is the rule, not the exception.

“These are not really different churches; they are a mere symbol of the diversity of the church,” says the former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah, who participated in the event. Since retiring in 2008, the patriarch has been living in Taybeh, in the newly built Beit Afram home for the elderly on the village’s southern outskirts.

In recent years, as more and more Christians emigrate from the Holy Land, this amity among the various communities has grown stronger. Fifteen years ago, church leaders throughout the Holy Land agreed to celebrate major holidays, namely Christmas and Easter, together. In areas with mixed faithful, churches would celebrate Christmas on 25 December, according to the Latin calendar, and Easter according to the varying dates of the Orthodox Julian calendar.

Taybeh is the only entirely Christian village in Palestine,” says 70–year–old Ne’meh Issa proudly. Born and reared in Taybeh, Mrs. Issa has spent her entire life in the village. As do most villagers, she feels strongly about Taybeh’s Christian identity. “It is pure Christian and exists peacefully next to Muslim villages and also Israeli settlements.”

Though small with only 2,000 inhabitants, Taybeh is in fact the last remaining entirely Christian settlement in Palestine. Everyone belongs to one of its three churches. About 1,160 villagers belong to St. George Orthodox Church, which was built between 1929 and 1932 near the site of a fourth–century church. Another 530 belong to Christ the Redeemer Latin Catholic Church, built in l971. And about 310 belong to St. George Melkite Greek Catholic Church, built in l964.

Known as Afram (Ephraim) in biblical times, this village is where Jesus and his disciples took refuge after Lazarus’ resurrection, when the Sanhedrin issued him a death sentence. In the years between 326 and 328, Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine I, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and visited the sites associated with Jesus’ life, ministry, passion and death.

Helena and her traveling companion, Bishop Macarius, commissioned the construction of many shrines and churches to mark these holy sites. Among them was St. George Church in Taybeh.

Though now a roofless ruin, the ancient site still plays a central role in village life. Many local couples choose the ruins as the setting for their weddings. And according to a local tradition, villagers occasionally slaughter sheep at its entrance and give the meat to needy neighbors.

The ruins of St. George and the remnants of an elaborate fourth–century mosaic floor also attract countless pilgrims. Every day, they and locals enter the ruins and light candles in its cross–shaped baptismal basin.

More than simply proud of their Christian heritage, Taybeh’s residents are by and large devout.

“On Sundays, the majority of the villagers go to their churches,” says Mrs. Issa, who now lives in a nearby nursing home. “We are very proud to be followers of Jesus Christ.”

As is the case for so many locals, most of her family has emigrated. Her brother, whom she recently visited in California, often encourages her to join him and other family members in the United States. But, she prefers to live out her golden years in Taybeh.

Mofeed Michael, a senior at the Friends Boys High School in Ramallah, shares Mrs. Issa’s zeal for the village’s vibrant Christian life.

“On Palm Sunday, the whole village marches in a parade and prays until they reach the old church.

“I think we should all live as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all Christians believing in one God, believing in the Holy Spirit regardless of the differences between the churches.”

At most, 50,000 Christian Palestinians live in the West Bank — less than 2 percent of the population. Since 1967, the number of Christians in Gaza and the West Bank has dramatically declined; today, 35 percent fewer Christians reside in these territories. Intermittent war, Israeli blockades, the nearby separation barrier and the resulting economic stagnation have prompted Christians to leave en masse.

Though Taybeh’s residents remain entirely Christian, the village did not survive unscathed. Prior to 1967, more than 5,000 people called Taybeh home. But since then, most have emigrated to the Arabian Peninsula, South America, the United States and elsewhere in search of a better life. Those who stayed behind continue to struggle. Israeli occupation and tight restrictions on movement, particularly in and out of Jerusalem, have devastated the local job market. At present, Taybeh’s unemployment rate hovers at a whopping 40 percent.

“Villagers emigrate every year; the population of Taybeh now is what it was three or four thousand years ago,” says Mary Michael, Mofeed’s mother. An elementary school English teacher, Mrs. Michael also volunteers at the Taybeh Cooperative for Country Development, a women’s organization, where several times a week she coordinates events for senior citizens.

“Of course the main reason, which reflects itself on other issues, is the political situation; for example, forced closures, random searches, checkpoints, etc.,” continues the mother of four. “It frustrates people, especially youth, and causes economic problems for the villagers. They are escaping an unsafe zone to places where they are free and safe and can find work and better opportunities. Some people leave, promising to come back in a couple of years to their roots. But that day never comes.”

Abeer Kourieh, principal of the village’s Orthodox school, also laments Taybeh’s many troubles, though she still has hope for its future.

“All of us are living as a big family loving, sharing and caring for each other. Of course, we never forget that we are living under occupation and enduring its negative impact on our way of life — unemployment, a lack of security, forced closures. Now, we are facing emigration to other cities nearby or abroad,” says the woman in her 30’s. “We are struggling, but we will continue to live our faith in our beloved village.”

Most residents fortunate enough to have jobs work in agriculture. Some 30,000 olive trees grow in family–owned groves in and around Taybeh. Farmers harvest and sell the olives, as well as produce olive oil, soap and cosmetics from them. Many also keep apiaries, whose honey they sell in local markets and to pilgrims and tourists.

But for the last 15 years, Taybeh’s most important industry has been beer. The family– owned Taybeh Brewery began modestly, when brothers Nadim and Daoud Khoury returned to their hometown to help rebuild the local economy. Over the next decade, the brothers worked tirelessly to improve their product and expand the business.

The Khoury family has lived in Taybeh for at least 600 years. The brothers’ grandfather served as the pastor of the local Orthodox parish. As children, they attended school in nearby Ramallah. But as young adults, conflict and the resulting dearth of educational and economic opportunities drove the brothers to set out for the United States, where they completed their studies and lived for several years.

“We came back after the Oslo Agreement. First, my brother Nadim came in 1994 and I myself followed in 1999,” says Daoud Khoury, who since 2005 has served as Taybeh’s mayor.

“I wanted to do something for my small village. It is important to me to keep Taybeh a Christian village in Palestine. I mean no prejudice, but we are surrounded by 16 Muslim villages and live with them peacefully,” explains Mayor Khoury. “But, I and my fellow citizens feel it is a treasure that we inherited this land from our great–grandfathers. They passed down the land from generation to generation and did not sell it, even though they were probably in need back then. We feel it is our duty to preserve the land and keep Taybeh Christian.”

Since opening its doors, Taybeh Brewery has steadily earned a local and international reputation for its high quality, all–natural selection of beers, which includes a popular golden stout and nonalcoholic alternative.

Though Israeli occupation, checkpoints and the separation barrier make distribution difficult and costly, the brewery nonetheless produces some 16,000 gallons of beer a year, selling it throughout the region and beyond. Taybeh Brewery already exports its beer to Japan and runs a franchise in Germany. It now plans to export the beer to and possibly open a franchise in the United States.

Impressed by the locals’ hospitality, the 12th–century Sultan Saladin of Egypt and Syria first named the village Taybeh, or “good” in Arabic, when he and his infantry passed through.

However, Taybeh also means “delicious.” These days, locals more often associate the village with its delicious beer and annual Oktoberfest.

Every October for the last six years, Taybeh Brewery has hosted an Oktoberfest in the village. Organized by Dr. Maria Khoury, the mayor’s wife, the festival serves as a showcase for all that the village and its residents have to offer. Though the main attraction may be beer, the festival brings together local vendors, who sell fresh produce, olive oil, soap and cosmetics, ceramics and traditional Palestinian embroidery. The village’s social clubs and associations stage traditional music, dance and theater performances.

On average, the two–day Oktoberfest draws some 16,000 visitors to the village. Local government, business and church leaders all get involved in the festival, which they hope will increase tourism, attract new businesses, create jobs and generate income for residents.

With so many residents emigrating and in recent years selling their property, Taybeh’s leaders — secular and religious — worry about the future of the village and its distinct Christian identity.

“In the last three or four years, we have seen a wave of people coming back and trying to sell their land,” says Mayor Khoury.

As mayor, he has made it a priority to discourage locals from selling their land to non–Christian settlers. And as a successful businessman, he has also invested considerable sums of his own money in property other local residents cannot afford to keep.

“Through the United Taybeh American Association, we held a successful convention this last summer for over 300 expats on the themes of village solidarity, preserving Taybeh’s Christian identity and the promise of all those who try to sell land only to sell it to someone from Taybeh,” says the mayor.

“We live on hope. Unless we can secure jobs and peace and stability in this country, we cannot convince kids to come home and settle here,” he continues. “If we try to stick together and forgive each other, hopefully we will have a country and we will have peace.”

For her part, Dr. Maria Khoury leads many of the municipality’s charitable activities. A Greek–American, she and her husband recently celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.

The couple has two sons and a daughter, all of whom are studying in Boston. The Khourys pray their children will return to Palestine once they complete their education.

Dr. Khoury focuses much of her energy on building homes for local needy families. She travels to the United States to speak to Greek Orthodox parishes around the country and raise money for Taybeh’s struggling residents.

Currently, she is fund–raising for the Canaan David Khoury Housing Development, named after her father–in–law. When complete, it will consist of 30 single–family homes. The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem donated the property, and Dr. Khoury has so far raised $145,000 from private donors — enough to finance the construction of the first 16 houses. As part of the project, each of the 16 families has already paid $10,000 in installments, or half of the home’s construction costs.

Children and youth education also figure prominently in Dr. Khoury’s charity portfolio. An author, she has written a number of children’s books on Christians in the Holy Land, including “Christina Goes to the Holy Land.” Through her fund–raising efforts, she has established a $50,000 endowment fund for Taybeh’s Orthodox youth. Recipients receive an annual scholarship of $500 for college–level studies at a local university.

Though born in Greece and brought up in the United States, Dr. Khoury feels a deep spiritual connection to Taybeh and the Holy Land. And as a devout Christian, she believes in peace.

“I think, living here under occupation and having to face the checkpoints, forced closures and the separation barrier, the most important message of the Gospel is: Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who abuse you; turn the other check to those who strike you,” says Dr. Khoury, citing Matthew’s Gospel.

Father Ra’ed is my example. He is doing such wonderful work for Taybeh, and I try to get the Orthodox Church to do at least as much,” says Dr. Khoury.

Pastor of Christ the Redeemer Church for the past seven years, Father Ra’ed heads the Latin Secondary School, the Caritas Medical Center and the church’s guesthouse. He also helps manage the motherhouse of the Rosary Sisters.

Father Ra’ed shares wholeheartedly the Khourys’ commitment to Taybeh. For him, the path to prosperity hinges on developing the village’s economic sustainability by creating jobs for residents, strengthening its social service institutions and encouraging tourism.

“Please stop giving money to Christians in the Holy Land; it has cultivated a mentality of professional begging. People get to thinking you always have to be assisted. I say Christians in the Holy Land would like to work, make high–quality products and live and survive with dignity,” explains the priest.

“At the same time, please don’t leave us alone. Come visit us. Don’t be afraid. The responsibility for the Christian presence in the Holy Land is the responsibility of all Christians in the world: Their faith started here from that empty tomb the day of the resurrection, 2,000 years ago.”

Perhaps Father Ra’ed’s greatest contribution has been the Olive Branch Foundation, a nonprofit he founded and runs. The business includes a small ceramics factory and most recently an olive press and machinery to make and package olive oil and olive–based soap and cosmetic products from locally grown olives.

The priest’s business endeavors began five years ago, when one day at church he displayed some of his handmade white ceramic lamps in the shape of doves. He filled them with locally produced olive oil, placed them near the altar and encouraged parishioners to light them and pray for peace. Delighted by the “peace” lamps, parishioners quickly spread the word to neighbors from other congregations, and in no time, residents inundated Father Ra’ed with requests for lamps of their own.

Seeing an opportunity to promote peace and generate income for the local community, Father Ra’ed intensified production, hiring a small team of local craftsmen, and began selling the lamps to faithful throughout the region and beyond.

“I use the lamp to put pressure on the heavens to make peace in the Holy Land,” says the priest.

So far, the foundation has produced and sold more than 80,000 lamps, “flying them,” as he says, “around the world like little birds until peace comes.”

The lamps’ success subsequently allowed Father Ra’ed to expand the business. Since so many local residents depend on cultivating olives, he naturally invested in the olive industry. Using a newly purchased olive press and other machinery, the foundation now produces premium olive oil and olive–based soap and cosmetics, selling the goods locally as well as exporting them further afield.

Today, the foundation employs 22 full–time staff. A nonprofit business, the foundation donates all profits to local charities and social service institutions. In particular, the foundation covers the operating costs of the five–year–old Beit Afram home for the elderly, which cares for 18 residents. In addition, the Olive Branch Foundation subsidizes the $550 monthly fee for several of the home’s needy residents.

“A Christian who cannot preach hope is not a Christian, especially in difficult times,” says Father Ra’ed. “A church of Jesus Christ which cannot help poor people or defend oppressed people is not a church of Jesus Christ because the church of Jesus Christ cannot remain silent in front of poverty, injustice and oppression. That is why we are struggling for peace.”

Danish-born Hanne Foighel reports regularly from the Middle East. Dr. Maria Khoury is a prominent civic leader in Taybeh.

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