In Israel, especially, some journalistic assignments aren’t very upbeat, so when I accepted ONE’s assignment to travel to the Galilee to profile the Rev. Androwas Bahus, a Melkite priest, and his community in the Arab village of Shefa-Amr, I secretly hoped the father and his flock would share the joy and sense of purpose in their lives, and not just their challenges.
And then, on 17 June, less than a week before photographer Ilene Perlman and I were scheduled to visit Shefa-Amr, arsonists — the police later arrested three far-right-wing Jewish extremists — set fire to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha, the site near the Sea of Galilee where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus miraculously multiplied loaves and fish to feed the 5,000.
The fire injured two people and badly damaged some of the church and an adjoining monastery.
Although Israeli Christians, who comprise less than 2 percent of the population, consider themselves relatively fortunate to be living in a country with a stable government and the rule of law, this attack and tens of others on Christian (and Muslim) property during the past few years have taken a toll on Christian morale.
The fact that the Israel police did not make a single arrest in connection with these attacks until the Loaves and Fishes church was torched has left Christians feeling vulnerable and frustrated.
I braced for this frustration when, on 21 June, Ilene and I attended a moving Sunday liturgy at the beautiful St. Peter & St. Paul Melkite Greek Catholic church, but when I interviewed the community members about the arson, what I heard was resolve, not anger. I learned that Father Bahus and other local clergy had organized a solidarity rally at the torched church for that very afternoon.
In his sermon that morning Father Bahus urged his parishioners to attend the demonstration and assert their civil and religious rights in a peaceful, Christian way. Within hours the parishioners were boarding buses to the church, more than an hour’s drive away.
Father Bahus told his flock he needed to remain at the church to officiate at a wedding but said he would be with the demonstrators in spirit.
The parish priest told me that, until recently, many Holy Land Christians have felt like leaves blowing in the wind, at the mercy of political forces beyond their control.
“What they need,” he said, “is hope and a feeling of empowerment.”
As I accompanied him on his home visits to the infirm and elderly, it was clear that both are in abundance in the Shefa-Amr parish, where church members donate funds to the parish on a monthly basis to strengthen the communities institutions and expand programming. The parish’s schools are thriving and there is a new community center.
Today, when Father Androwas Bahus leads Sunday mass, the pews are full and the spirit is overflowing.
Read more in “A Day in the Life of an Israeli Priest” in ONE.
And check out the video below, featuring an interview with photographer Ilene Perlman, who adds her own unique perspective on this memorable priest.