ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Today’s Prophetic Voices in the Holy Land

The forgotten minority in the Holy Land, Palestinian Christians express their faith with a quiet determination.

“The future of the Catholic Church in Palestine depends on the quality of Christianity of the local people, not on the holy stones,” says Father Elias Chacour. He speaks a truth little-recognized in the Catholic Church at large.

The Church’s existence in the Holy Land is threatened by the politics and economics which have been driving Palestinians from their homeland for more than 40 years. The Christian communities here are only two percent of the population, and the number is dropping. Catholics are a smaller percentage, numbering only about 77,000. If the Arab Christians leave, the land where Jesus lived would be without His followers.

Fortunately, there are Palestinian Christians whose faith lets them recognize and accept both the challenges and the responsibilities of their difficult position amid four million Jews and almost two million Muslims in Israel and its occupied territories. These Christians face the same challenges as the Church in its first years, except that now there is a worldwide Church which shares in their challenges within the one Body of Christ.

The living witness to Christ in the Holy Land is something rarely met by the typical pilgrim from the West. Yet, a vibrant spirituality here has a lineage back to the early Church and to the Hebrew prophets. A quiet and unheralded determination marks the survival of the Church here under difficult circumstances. The native Christian community provides essential leadership for Palestinians, both in articulating their needs and aspirations and in providing essential services to the community as a whole.

Father Elias Chacour speaks with a clarity, directness, and intensity which arise from a Palestinian Christian’s love of justice and truth. His actions speak with equal eloquence.

Father Chacour grew up in northern Galilee. As a boy he lived through the violent partition of his country, including the loss of his family’s beloved village and orchards. His faith matured in defiance of injustice and violence.

Now a Melkite priest, he still moves with boyish energy, but with a man’s purpose. At the same time he enjoys discussing his faith, such as his reflection on the Sermon on the Mount as a call to action. Going back to the Greek and Aramaic, he develops his exegesis on the theme of healing: “We’re called to do something. Jesus was saying, ‘Get up, do something – you peacemakers!’”

Father Chacour’s charming grin, quick humor, and natural warmth belie the struggles of his lifelong work, reconciliation among Christians, Muslims, and Jews. He began this work when the divided Christian community in his first, and current, parish of Ibillin refused to heal their separation. On Palm Sunday the young priest locked the church doors and told the congregation that Christians cannot come to the altar of the Lord before they are reconciled with their enemies. And then he waited for them to be Christians.

After ten long minutes, one village leader stood to offer his brother forgiveness, but it was only when they embraced in mutual forgiveness that their true conversions began and revitalized the congregation. They celebrated Easter a week early that year because the dead parish came back to life in Christ.

Father Chacour still confronts people with the living message of Christ, which calls Palestinian Christians to non-violence, reconciliation, and healing. He works toward a more just society through his school in Ibillin. It now has over 500 boys and girls from 18 towns and villages of Galilee. In their blue shirts and acid-washed bluejeans, students prepare for college or jobs under the inspiration of Father Chacour’s constructive approach to the difficulties of Palestinian life. They learn that the way to peace is to do justice in the work at hand.

“Christ is the ever-living person,” says Father Chacour. “The Body of Christ is in the community who whispers.” The perseverance of that living Church is found throughout the Holy Land.

Kamil Shehade reinforces the beliefs of Father Chacour when he says that “pride and dignity require self-help and action” to overcome oppression. Kamil brings this liberating message to a different population in the Palestinian community, prisoners and their families. In Haifa, what used to be a tumbledown church in the Arab neighborhood above the harbor has become House of Grace, the center for Kamil’s ministry and a revitalized Christian presence.

In 1981, the Greek Catholic bishop offered the Church of Mary, abandoned since 1940, to the young Palestinian social worker and his Swiss wife, who were developing their fledgling prison ministry.

Kamil and Agnes Shehade, with their son Jamal and daughter Anaja, live amid the ongoing renovations with released prisoners. Young pregnant women and older homeless men and women also come here for protection, help, and a new beginning. Hundreds of families turn to House of Grace for assistance to make ends meet and to enter into communion with their neighbors.

The physical structure of House of Grace is being built with stones recovered from destroyed Palestinian homes. Its community structure has a Franciscan simplicity marked by vitality, hope, and healing. Rubble and discarded stones are being built into something beautiful, a Church alive and growing strong under the difficulties that come with human societies searching for justice.

“We work not just to rehabilitate prisoners, but to rehabilitate society,” says Kamil.

“The trust of the people is coming back to the Church,” he says. “It’s what they’re doing for the Church, not just what the Church can give them” that is making the difference.

Near Jerusalem, buses of tourist-pilgrims often come to the village of John the Baptist, Ain Karem. Below the Church of the Visitation is a small house where 33 boys find a home under the care of three Rosary Sisters, all Palestinians.

“They come from broken homes – divorce, alcoholism, drug abuse,” explains Sister Agatha. These fourth through seventh graders study Arabic, Hebrew, English, and computer science, along with the normal courses of study in Jerusalem. At home they eat in shifts, do homework in a crowded study room, and sleep in rooms with up to 16 others.

The boys play roughhouse basketball, as if it were rugby. They compete among themselves, constantly revising their pecking order. They energetically engage visitors with requests: to play basketball, to share a cookie, to take their picture. Each boy tries a tentative “hello” like a bit of magic to see if the sound actually draws a response from an American. One boy fashions plastic building blocks together into a piece that only becomes recognizable when he says “Uzi.” They see the Uzi-toting Israeli soldiers and armed West Bank settlers when they leave the orphanage to go to school. They see the pilgrims trooping past the gates of the orphanage, from one shrine to another.

The Sisters work hard raising 33 boys from difficult backgrounds. A visitor wouldn’t have the nerve to point out that their snacks of cola, cookies, and gumdrops probably give these hyperactive boys too much sugar. The three Palestinian nuns show these boys plenty of love and give them a home.

“They’re happy,” says Sister Agatha. “All they need is this shelter, a bed.”

In Bethlehem, Edmund Shehadeh speaks of “low key Christianity” at work in the Bethlehem Arab Society for the Physically Handicapped (BASPH). You won’t see any religious men or women working in the community centers, clinics, or training facilities, but the programs of BASPH are a Christian presence recognized throughout the region for dedication to the Palestinian population. It serves as a resource center, a medical treatment and therapy center, and a vocational training center for the people of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Bethlehem is a Christian area – one of the few in Arab regions. Edmund’s program is one which keeps Christians here. While overseas Muslims and Jews send financial support to other communities in Israel and the occupied territories, Bethlehem receives relatively little aid for the work of its Christian community. “Where are the world’s Christians who want to keep Christianity alive here?” he asks.

The living Christianity is seen in the professional care and warm respect given to the thousands of lives touched by this agency. Its medical treatment and therapy help the disabled toward independent living. An outpatient clinic now handles 2000 handicapped children and adults each year. It also educates mothers on methods of caring for their disabled children.

One recent visit to BASPH is from a delegation of Arab villagers who came more than 150 miles. A dignified man with humble eyes needs to replace his artificial leg. He walked with it for 14 years, but it no longer works properly and he has nowhere else to go for help. Within a few minutes over the customary coffee, he hears he will get a new artificial leg and the old one will be repaired for emergency use. After handshakes all around, the villagers leave for the BASPH shop, where “disabled” craftsmen make prosthetic limbs, braces, and shoes. “That’s how fast the money goes,” Edmund notes with mixed feelings. Funding is always inadequate, but people need help.

“We are building bridges within our community, and more bridges outside,” he says. “We are strengthening our community.”

Beit Jala
In the nearby village of Beit Jala, the new BASPH rehabilitation center is taking shape. On another hillside is the Latin Patriarchate Seminary. Seventeen major seminarians and sixty-four minor seminarians study here.

The seminary gives its students an appreciation of the unique role of native Christians in the Holy Land. The combination of their Christian faith and Arab culture is a powerful identity for these Palestinians.

The seminary rector, Father Boulos, argues that “to help the seminary is the best way to help the Palestinian Christian community.” Developing a seminarian to the priesthood is a long process – six years in minor seminary and seven in major seminary. “Then we have someone to build the Church,” he says. “Building a church, you can see immediate results. To have a person is much better.”

Only eight percent of the entering class remains long enough to be ordained. Father Boulos says, “The good education received here isn’t lost on the Christian community. Those who do not become priests become leaders in their communities and send their children here to study. They still keep the Church alive.”

Father Boulos speaks of building family, Church, community, communion. “The world is small. We have a chance to form one family, one community, and to work for peace.

“The Church here works for peace and justice. It’s the best work of evangelizing and mission.

“No peace without justice…Our priority is to promote justice. That’s our mission, and it requires dialogue and understanding.”

His words echo those of Elias Chacour, Kamil Shehade, Sister Agatha, and Edmund Shehadeh. Their ministries are one mission, the Church’s mission, “to create one community, Church, family.”

These are the words and ministries of Palestinian Christians, who don’t have the luxury to sit wondering if the Church will survive where the Gospel was first announced to people hungry for truth and righteousness. They have work to do.

Michael Healy, editor of Catholic Near East, recently spent ten days among Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land.

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