ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

The Christians of Ain Arik

Christians in the village of Ain Arik.

The first followers of Jesus came from small villages in Galilee: Capernaum, Bethsaida, Magdala. Only ruins remain of these villages today. Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene, is a small field of stones that a pilgrim would hardly notice unless a guide pointed it out.

It was in these villages, as well as in Jerusalem, that the early church sprang to life. Jesus had stayed in Peter’s one-room house while in Capemaum; here a paralytic, let down through the roof, was forgiven and healed (Mark 2:1-12). In the mid-first century, this room became the gathering place where Capernaum’s Jewish Christians celebrated the eucharist. The glass floor of a modern church allows one to gaze down upon this venerable room.

Christian communities have endured in the villages of the Holy Land until this day. Some are no longer villages: Bethlehem and Nazareth are bustling Palestinian cities. In other cases, such as Capernaum, ancient sites were abandoned as Christians migrated to new areas. Some of the places in which they resettled remain small villages and convey a sense of the antiquity of the church in the Holy Land. They may also provide a glimpse of what village life in the time of Christ was like; some things have remained relatively unchanged.

One such village is Ain Arik, which lies in the hills of the West Bank north of Jerusalem. In the Old Testament era it was the home of the Archites, a Canaanite clan incorporated into the tribe of Benjamin (Josh. 16:2; 2 Sam. 16:16). The “modern” village dates from 1480, when a Christian named Farah Shaheen moved to the site. He was probably attracted, as had been the Canaanites before him, by a free-flowing spring in the valley. The village gets it name from this spring and its Canaanite past: Ain Arik means the spring of the Archites.

This spring is the only source of drinking water for the more than 900 inhabitants of Ain Arik. There is no water or sewage system for the village, no telephones, no postal service; electricity came only in 1988. Wood and dried animal dung are used for cooking, or bottled gas by those who can afford it. Donkeys are still used for plowing. Each morning and evening the women of the village trek to the spring; only their plastic buckets separate them from the generations of women who drew water before them and carried it up the same steep hillside.

I visited some of their homes, accompanied by Abuna Hanna, the Catholic priest of the village. One home we visited was a Middle Eastern equivalent of a split-level house. Once through its door we had the choice of either continuing down into a cave that housed a flock of chickens, or up three steep steps into the single whitewashed room that serves as the living quarters. Here live Tawfeq Shaheen and his wife Miriam, descendants of the family of Farah Shaheen who had settled on the site half a millennium earlier. They welcomed us into their home and Miriam began to brew coffee for us.

Tawfeq spoke of his 17 years of service in the British police, during the British protectorate period in Palestine prior to 1947. Though well past the retirement age by American standards, he still farms the fields he bought with the money lie made as a policeman. He took down a rababe, a one-string fiddle, from the fireplace mantel and played hymns for us, apologizing that the instrument was a bit out of tune because of the humidity. Miriam served her coffee, made with water from the spring and coffee beans she had ground. It was very good, rich, full-bodied coffee.

Afterwards Abuna Hanna spoke with me about the village. Until it was flooded with refugees displaced by Israel’s war of independence in 1948, the village had been almost entirely Christian Palestinian. Many of the refugees moved on, but those who remained make up a sizable part of the population. Most of them live in a refugee camp on the southwest side of the valley and receive help from UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

Presently, there are about 100 Latin (Roman) Catholic and 170 Greek Orthodox Christians in Ain Arik, along with about 650 Muslims. Relations between Christians and Muslims are good and relations between Catholics and Orthodox, excellent – Abuna Hanna and the Orthodox priest, Abuna Nicola, are friends. The Pontifical Mission is helping repair water seepage into the village’s Greek Orthodox church. During my visit, one of the Pontifical Mission’s employees was up on the church roof with a contractor discussing the problem.

Christians have emigrated from Ain Arik in search of jobs and housing: there were two and a half times as many Catholics in Ain Arik 40 years ago. Abuna Hanna summarized the needs of the people: “Peace. Housing. Jobs.”

I heard these needs on the lips of many Christians in the Holy Land.

For example, Archbishop Lutfi Laham, the Melkite (Greek Catholic) patriarchal vicar in Jerusalem, said that “housing is the most important factor in the stability of the Christian presence in the Holy Land. And providing housing is the best way to reduce the emigration of Christians.”

But it is no easy matter for Palestinians living in the West Bank to obtain housing. Zoning restrictions imposed by the Israeli military administration of the Occupied Territories limit where Palestinians may build. It is a difficult and expensive process to obtain a building permit and houses built without a permit are routinely bulldozed by the Israeli authorities. I asked one Palestinian lawyer how long it took to obtain a permit to build a house; “all of your life,” he said.

He was only half joking. A major Catholic religious order wished to build 12 apartment units for poor Christian Palestinians on land that it owned. After three years of filling out forms, the local superior wrote a pleading letter to a high government official:

“Every time we reach agreement with this or that office, a new and sudden obstacle arises in front of us. We continue to ask ourselves: ‘what else could be done to obtain the permit? What will be the next obstacle? Shall we get the permit one day?”’

They eventually got their permit. But if a major Catholic order has trouble obtaining a building permit, it is easy to understand that ordinary Palestinians may find the task almost impossible.

In Ain Arik about 20 families live in completely inadequate housing. There is a backlog in the village of those wishing to marry, but unable to do so because cultural and practical reasons dictate that marriage be deferred until the couple has a house. And then there are those who have moved from Ain Arik and want to return, but cannot because no housing is available. Some families own land on which houses could be built, but they have not been able to obtain permits or financing.

Jobs are also a problem in Ain Arik, for the economy of the village is basically agrarian. Families have plots of land in the hills surrounding the village. There they grow olives, figs, beans and wheat. These crops provide subsistence, but little more. There is pressure on the younger generation to move out in order to obtain paying jobs – to nearby Ramallah or to the United States.

Each departure of Christians from the Holy Land reduces the strength and vitality of a church whose numbers have steadily decreased over the last 50 years. A 1991 statement by the Middle East’s Catholic patriarchs spoke of the “grave harm done by emigration, which reduces our numbers, renders our work ineffective and deprives our churches and our nations of the generous service we should give them.”

Emigration is the result of a deeper problem, which Jonathan Evans of Catholic Relief Services in Jerusalem identifies as “disenfranchisement: people do not have control over their own lives.” This will not be resolved until a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict allows Palestinian institutions to develop, including an economy that can provide jobs and housing.

Meanwhile, various church agencies do what they can to help the Christians of the Holy Land. The Pontifical Mission is providing seed money for a carpentry shop in Ain Arik. The Greek Catholic Patriarchate has built 36 units of low-income housing in Beit Hanina, north of Jerusalem.

The presence of Abuna Hanna in Ain Arik is itself a sign of the church’s commitment to preserve the Palestinian Christian community. An Italian priest from Bologna, he is “Abuna Hanna” to his Arabic-speaking parishioners and “Father John” to English-speaking visitors. Abuna Hanna belongs to Piccola Famiglia dell’ Annunziata, “the Little Family of the Annunciation,” a contemplative order founded in 1953. They have a small monastery in Ain Arik for Abuna Hanna and two brothers. Adjoining it a convent houses six nuns, all from Italy. Abuna Hanna serves as the pastor of Ain Arik and the nuns teach religion in the parish school.

Abuna Hanna invited me to join them for vespers. They prayed in Arabic: their founder, Don Giuseppe Dossetti, directed the Little Family to pray the office in the vernacular language of the people in whose midst they live. As they chanted psalms in Arabic, I thought of the countless men and women who had come to the Holy Land before them, to settle in its hills and spend their lives in prayer. In the 6th century, there were 130 monasteries or settlements of hermits around Jerusalem, some of them holding up to 6,000 monks. The Little Family of the Annunciation is part of this great tradition.

As I left Ain Arik to return to Jerusalem, I pondered that the Palestinian Christians of Ain Arik are themselves part of a great tradition: they embody a heritage that dates back to the days when the people of another small village gathered in the home of a fisherman and celebrated their faith in the Son of God.

George Martin is a frequent visitor to the Holy Land.

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