ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Our Lady of Guadalupe – Of Bir Zeit?

A profile of a vibrant Palestinian parish dedicated to Mexico’s patroness.

On Thanksgiving Day, 1994, I arrived in Jerusalem after a grueling flight from the United States. As I was checking into my hotel, the desk phone rang. To my surprise I was told that the call was for me. It was a friend extending an invitation to join him for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. This was being given by the parishioners of the Catholic parish in the Palestinian village of Bir Zeit for Americans working for development agencies in the Holy Land. I was groggy, but happy to accept the invitation.

It turned out to be not one feast but two: a complete American Thanksgiving Day meal, with turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, and a full Arab meal with many plates of salads, chicken and rice. About 40 of us, half Americans and half local Palestinian Catholics, gathered around a long table laden with plates and cutlery.

The Palestinian women who prepared the meal were rightfully proud of their mastery of American cooking, and I took a second helping to demonstrate my appreciation. But my appetite was really for the Palestinian dishes, especially for a platter of rice flavored with ground lamb, nuts and spices. I indulged myself with a third helping of the Palestinian dishes and at the end of the meal felt more stuffed than the turkey.

In subsequent visits to Bir Zeit I learned more about this hospitable parish. Located on the West Bank, Bir Zeit is 13 miles north of Jerusalem. About 1,500 of its 2,500 inhabitants are Christians, most of whom are Latin (Roman) Catholic or Greek Orthodox. The most imposing building in the village is the Catholic church. On first seeing it I wondered why a rather modest village needed such a of large church. Was it simply the result of a pastor’s “edifice complex”? Even more surprising was the mosaic image of Our Lady of Guadalupe towering behind the altar. What was the Patroness of the Americas doing on the West Bank?

Bir Zeit, which means “well of olive [oil],” dates back before the birth of Christ. Local Christians believe their Christian community originated when the apostles went on mission “throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 1:8). Bir Zeit, with its terraced hills lined with olive trees, lies between ancient Judea and Samaria. After the Arab-Islamic conquest of the region in the seventh century, Christians living in the Holy Land retained their Christian faith.

In 1943, an Italian priest, Father Anton Buso, was appointed pastor of the village’s Catholic parish. Five years later this once sleepy village swelled in size as Palestinian refugees fled their native villages and towns during the Arab-Israeli conflict. The parish needed a new church building and Father Buso decided the construction of such an edifice would provide job-training and employment, thereby alleviating the poverty that afflicted the area. The larger the church, the priest reasoned, the more jobs the project would provide. And a vast church would make possible Father Buso’s dream “to gather all Christians in.” So he began touring Europe, giving lectures on the Holy Land while raising money for the new church. Construction started slowly in 1952, as the men of Bir Zeit began to learn masonry and other building skills. Even today, thanks to the initiative of Father Buso, Bir Zeitis are respected as skilled builders.

Because funds were chronically short, the church went up very slowly. Once someone complained to Father Buso that despite 15 years of work the walls were only four meters high. Father Buso, who is barely five feet tall, retorted, “So? After 60 years, I’m still only one-and-a-half meters!”

Construction came to a halt in the late 60s; Father Buso had exhausted his European funds. At this critical time Msgr. Gregorio Aguilar, Archpriest of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, near Mexico City, arrived in Jerusalem with funds to have a church built in the Holy Land in honor of Mexico’s patroness. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem sent him to Father Buso, who had intended to dedicate the parish church to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. (Devotion to Mary runs deep in the Holy Land; she was, after all, a local girl!) Msgr. Aguilar and Father Buso agreed that the church could be dedicated to Mary under both titles, which it was when consecrated in 1972. Today Our Lady of Guadalupe looks down from the wall of virtually every room in the parish complex.

After 50 years as pastor, Father Buso retired in 1993 and now lives in the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. His successor, Father Emil Salayta, also has great dreams for the parish and he has the boundless energy to make them happen.

Father Salayta was born in Jordan into the Ma’ayah branch of the El Ghasasinah tribe, a Bedouin tribe that has been Christian since before the advent of Islam. Although Father Salayta was baptized Greek Orthodox, he went to the Latin Catholic school in Madaba. His family was friendly with the local Catholic priest, and he began serving Mass when he was eight. At the age of 12 he entered the Latin Catholic minor seminary and 13 years later, in 1989, Father Salayta was ordained a priest.

Bir Zeit is a challenging pastoral assignment. Like other villages and towns in the West Bank, it was under Israeli military occupation from 1967 until about a year ago. Normal economic development was restricted; many men of Bir Zeit had to travel into Israel to find work. Now Israel has been sealed off from the West Bank and Gaza; Palestinian workers may no longer get to their jobs. At the end of 1995, the World Bank estimated unemployment in the West Bank at 33 percent. It has since been reported that the number of those without work today may be even higher.

The closure of the West Bank and Gaza has affected many aspects of Palestinian life. Jerusalem, which has also been sealed off from the West Bank, has the largest Palestinian population of any urban center in the Holy Land. And, until access was denied, Jerusalem was the center of the economic, educational, political and social activities of those who lived in nearby villages like Bir Zeit.

Mansour Shahin, the mayor of Bir Zeit, is a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish. He complained after Mass one Sunday that the Israeli authorities will not even allow ambulances or hearses with West Bank license plates into Jerusalem, much less cabs, buses or private cars.

The sealing off of the West Bank has severed Bir Zeit from the life it drew from Jerusalem. Father Salayta calls the village “almost dead; there is nothing happening.”

Opportunities for recreation or social activity are limited for the youth. Hence, Father Salayta has opened the parish facilities to the village. Every time I have visited, I have found young people kicking around a soccer ball in the parking lot, playing basketball or just hanging out on the front steps of the church. Some are coming or going from youth groups or choir practice. “The choir provides an opportunity to catechize young people,” Father Salayta said recently.

A group of 30 Catholic students from nearby Bir Zeit University meets every Monday evening for Bible study “and to raid the refrigerator,” Father Salayta said with a smile. These “raids” are fine with him. “The parish should be a home for young people,” he explained. These 30 students in turn arrange activities for the 300 or more Christian youth who attend Bir Zeit University.

A young adult group, which invites men and women between the ages of 18 and 26, meets weekly in the parish as well, and there is a two-year Bible study program for adults. “People work but have nothing else to do,” Father Salayta added. “The parish provides activities that give them hope and a sense of a normal life.”

The parish conducts a month-long summer camp. More than 200 children, ranging in age from four to 12, arrive in the morning, while 100 teenagers attend an afternoon of sports, music, catechesis and lessons in English and computers. In the evening about 40 adults attend a variety of courses. The aim is both recreational and educational, with the added benefit of increasing parishioners’ involvement with the church. The camp is run by volunteers from the parish; however, Father Salayta still has to come up with $10,000 every year to finance it.

“But as Christians we cannot forget Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” he declared. Yet the Christians of Bir Zeit cannot go into Jerusalem to pray at Calvary and the tomb of Jesus without a difficult-to-obtain permit.

The focal point of Father Salayta’s attention is the parish school. This is natural, for in addition to being the pastor he is also the General Director of Schools for the Latin Patriarchate. Father Salayta has begun a number of pilot programs in Bir Zeit that may then be duplicated in other parishes and schools. The programs embrace all ages, from preschoolers to adults. Even a special education program for children with learning disabilities is included.

Kindergarten as a preparation for elementary school is particularly important; many homes in Bir Zeit are not able to provide much in the way of an early learning environment.

“Some children have never colored with a crayon until they come to kindergarten,” Father Salayta reported.

Kindergarten has been revamped and has been extended to a two-year program enrolling 96 students. Dr. Jacqueline Sfeir, an early childhood education specialist at Bethlehem University, has adapted the Montessori method for the preschool. Instead of trying to make young children sit at orderly rows of desks, as was traditionally done, they are now divided into activity groups, with each corner of the two classrooms furnished for a different set of activities.

The five kindergarten teachers also receive ongoing training to sharpen their skills. Father Salayta hopes to extend the Montessori method to the lower grades of the school in the future.

The Bir Zeit parish school has 325 students in grades one to nine; three-quarters of them are Christian; the rest are Muslim. The school has long taught English as well as the children’s native Arabic. Last year, however, Hebrew lessons were added in grades five through nine. This was a bold move; Hebrew was viewed as the language of the occupying forces. For three decades the only experience most children had of Israelis was as armed soldiers on patrol.

No primary school on the West Bank taught Hebrew to Palestinians. But Father Salayta’s view is that “we are going to be neighbors. We have to learn to understand each other. Peace is not only a signature on a treaty; peace is in the interaction between people.” Learning Hebrew is one step toward establishing normal relations between Arabs and Israelis.

Another goal of Father Salayta is to get as much use as possible out of parish facilities, particularly the school. The children’s school day ends at 2:00 P.M. Then youth and adult programs begin, which conclude in the evening. A secretarial and vocational training program starts at 4:00 P.M. and includes courses in English, Hebrew, accounting and computers.

Father Salayta is particularly proud of the new computer lab, since funds for the computers were raised by Bir Zeitis – using, among other means, a bingo night with prizes donated by local merchants.

The school’s tuition is fixed so as to be affordable, which means the school operates at a loss. Although the adult programs are offered at a low cost, the 80 students enrolled there provide income, making the operation more self-supporting.

The education programs are the center-piece of the Bir Zeit parish and for a reason: Father Salayta views them as the key to the health of the church in the Holy Land.

“The aim of education is to prepare people for the future,” he said. “Education can provide skills and self-esteem, so that Christians may play a role in society. Without education, Christians may feel marginalized. They may be unable to get decent jobs and may therefore be tempted to leave.”

Christians now constitute about two percent of the Holy Land’s population, a significant decrease from a high of perhaps over 30 percent earlier this century. Today 5,000 natives of Bir Zeit, and their descendants, live abroad. There are 130 families of Bir Zeitis in San Francisco alone.

“The mission of the church is to maintain a Christian presence in the Holy Land, to enable Christian Palestinians to remain who they are where they are,” Father Salayta continued. “We are not numerous enough to make a quantitative difference today, but through education we can make a qualitative difference. We can even hope to be a bridge of reconciliation between Jews and Muslims.”

Father Salayta’s ultimate hope is that Christians who have emigrated from the Holy Land will return, with the hope of living a decent life in the land of their birth. If that is to happen, the root causes of Christian emigration must be addressed: lack of jobs, housing and political rights.

Unemployment is an obvious problem. Coupled with it is the need for affordable housing. “Housing is our biggest problem,” said Father Salayta. There are 60 couples in Bir Zeit who want to get married but cannot afford a house or apartment, and so they continue to live at home and defer marriage. Father Salayta would like to see a housing complex built for low-income families on property the church would donate. That dream remains only a dream.

My conversation with Father Salayta turned from immediate problems to larger concerns, and he spoke to me as an American Catholic visiting his land. “The church in Jerusalem is the mother church for every Christian; what happens here should matter to you.” He would like to see the larger church express further its solidarity with the church in the Holy Land.

“Pilgrims to the Holy Land should try to meet with local Christians as well as visit the holy sites,” he added. The Bir Zeit parish has hosted about 30 pilgrimage groups over the last few years, for evening Mass and dinner afterward, and intends to welcome more groups in the future.

Hospitable to the end, Father Salayta invited me to join him for lunch in the nearby village of Jifne, another predominantly Christian village on the West Bank. His friend Father Ibrahim Hijazin had invited him over for a traditional Bedouin meal. As his family name indicates, Father Ibrahim is a member of the Hijazin, a Latin Catholic Bedouin tribe, 7,000 of whom live in Jordan.

Lunch was mansaf, a platter heaped with rice and chunks of lamb, sprinkled with pine nuts and roasted almonds, and drenched with a thin Bedouin yogurt. They showed me the traditional way of eating it: rolling a morsel of lamb in a small ball of rice with one’s right hand and then popping it into one’s mouth. They were very good at it. I was not, but they did not laugh at my efforts. And it was delicious.

George Martin travels often through the Holy Land.

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