10 December 2019
Palestinian Melkite Catholics Peter and Eli Hosh prepare meat in the kitchen of their restaurant, Abu Eli, in Bethlehem, West Bank. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Brothers Peter and Eli Hosh grew up knowing that their hometown was not only the place where they went to school and ran down to the corner market for their mother, but the town where Jesus was born.
It is a lesson they and their two sisters continue to teach their own children, especially during the Christmas season.
“I feel that here there is something great here. We are living in a holy place,” said Eli Hosh, who, at 50 is the elder of the two. “Bethlehem is important for our family, and I tell that to my children. Jesus was born here. I always feel the holiness here, this is my city, but the best time in Bethlehem is Christmas.”
Unlike many other Christian families in the Bethlehem area, none of the Hosh siblings have moved abroad.
“The most important thing is for the local Christians to stay,” said Peter Hosh, 33, the youngest of the siblings. “Year by year we see less Christian (families) here. Why? It is difficult everywhere. We have hard things in life, we know, but we have to stay here and fix that. You leave and you have to start from zero; here we have our family, our work. Everybody knows each other.”
Two of Eli Hosh’s daughters are studying at universities abroad in Europe.
“Of course they will come back. Bethlehem is important for our whole family, and we know we need to stay,” he said.
Together the two brothers, who are Melkite Catholics, run one of Bethlehem’s most well-known grilled-meat restaurants, Abu Eli. It was founded in 1999 by their late father, Anton. “Abu Eli” means the father of Eli in Arabic, and traditionally Palestinian men are given the nickname of “father of” after their first-born son. The restaurant is a favorite of local Christians for Christmas Eve dinner, and many tourists visiting over the holiday have also discovered its charms.
This year Peter Hosh said he is able to experience the wonder of Christmas through the eyes of his 3-year-old daughter, Yasmin, who is now beginning to understand the concept of the holiday and that she is living in the place where Jesus was born.
“My mother came over to help us start celebrating and decorating. This season is so special, and my daughter has been asking us to decorate already. We (adults) have a glass of wine, and we enjoy ourselves,” he said. “Every time we tell my daughter that the story of Christmas took place here, she begins to sing a song she learned at her nursery school.”
They bake ginger cookies and special Christmas fruit cake, or buy them at one of the local bakeries for seasonal treats, he said.
Katherine Hosh, 70, said she is proud that all her children have remained in the city.
“I don’t want anyone of my children to leave,” she said. For her, as a Christian in Bethlehem, it is a privilege to be able to go to Mass at St. Catherine Church, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity. “I pray every Sunday.”
Eli and Peter Hosh said they never felt the need to leave Bethlehem for long. Peter Hosh completed all his academic studies, including his B.A. in hotel management, at Bethlehem University.
“I travel abroad, but I can’t stay away from Bethlehem for more than a week,” he said. “If I am away longer, I don’t feel well. I feel more comfortable here than any place in the world. Maybe there is something secret here. Maybe this is a sign that there is something special here. Most of our town is Muslim, so maybe some (Christians) leave (because) they are afraid, but I am not afraid. I feel this is our city, our town.”
Despite the political difficulties, he said, life for him in Bethlehem is good. Everyone knows everyone and greets each other on the street.
Abu Eli welcomes everybody, Peter Hosh said, and he recalled how, before the intifada, the restaurant was full of Israelis on Saturdays.
On Christmas Eve, the restaurant serves fukura, a festive lamb and potato stew that has been cooked for five hours in a covered clay pot on the charcoal flame. The Hoshes put on Christmas music and welcome Christian families celebrating the holiday.
“We feel very happy, you see many people coming here and enjoying themselves and feeling happy. We have known the families for a long time, and you feel like you are a part of their celebration, and you enjoy with them,” said Peter Hosh. “It is not just working. When we finish (serving) we sit down and join them and have a drink and talk.”
Since Christmas Eve is the busiest day of the year for the restaurant, the Hosh family celebrates Christmas together the following day. They go to mass at St. Catherine Church and then have lunch, which the Hosh sisters have prepared.
“I like this tradition,” said Peter. “We visit the church and pray. It is a special day.”
13 June 2019
Tags: Bethlehem Melkite
Filipino children demonstrate on 12 June 2019, near Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's house in Jerusalem. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
A group of Philippine mothers and children facing imminent deportation from Israel are finding some solace in their faith, with weekly prayer meetings and counseling from their parish priest and nuns.
Most of the mothers arrived legally in Israel to work as caretakers for the elderly, but remained in the country even after their work visas had expired and have lived in Israel for up to 20 or more years. They have created a life for themselves in Israel, which they believe is better than they could have in the Philippines.
Sister Regina Cobrador of Our Lady of Valor Parish for migrant workers and asylum-seekers in Tel Aviv said several of the mothers who have deportation orders belong to the parish, and they have been coming every Wednesday to the church, where a special group prayer is held for them.
“My heart goes out to them, but sometimes I don’t know what to counsel them. They speak of their fears and concerns for their children who know only the Israeli culture, and the fear about their difficult economic situation,” Sister Cobrador said. “But I also tell them that, from the legal laws of Israel, their children can’t get citizenship, even if they were born here. Israel is very small, so if they would take all the migrant workers who are living here, it would be very difficult.”
Most of the Filipinas are Catholic, and the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem has created a Vicariate for Migrants and Asylum Seekers to see to their pastoral needs.
The Rev. Rafic Nahara said the vicariate is trying to be available to those with deportation orders to counsel them about their concerns. However, they are in the country illegally, so there is little more the vicariate can do but help them prepare to return if they are deported, he said.
“(Israel) does have the right to do this. The mothers stayed illegally because they needed work. It is a very complex situation. Of course, people are asking for help, but it will hardly change the Israeli decision,” he said.
He noted that, previously, the Israeli government had reached an agreement allowing children under the age of 5 who were born in Israel to remain, with the understanding that no other such agreement would be forthcoming.
On 11 June, some 50 mothers and children demonstrated in front of the Israeli prime minister’s house, calling on him to halt the order and allow their children to stay, at least until they finish high school.
The children at the demonstration held up signs declaring their love for Israel, calling the country their home and asking not to be deported. They also sang Hebrew songs, including the Israeli national anthem.
“We wanted a better future for our children,” said Margie, a Catholic and one of 20 mothers facing deportation in July, with her 9-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. She asked that her last name not be used.
“The Philippines is a good country, but it is safer here,” she said. “The good schools are very expensive there, and there are drugs and crime and the children end up in the streets. In the Philippines, it is hard.”
Migrant workers from less-developed economies such as the Philippines and Thailand come to Israel to work and earn money to send home. Most are in Israel on five-year work visas, but a good number have risked deportation by staying even after their visas have expired, because the salaries they earn allow them to send their children in the Philippines to study at universities and to build a home there, but also because of the higher quality of life in Israel.
Margie, who is separated from her husband, said even though she is trained as a teacher, she would have to work a whole month in the Philippines to earn the same amount of money as she does in one day cleaning houses in Israel.
According to media reports, there are 1,500 Filipino children in the Israeli educational system, and the deportation orders were coordinated so they would be able to complete the school year.
The Israel Immigration Authority says it is enforcing Israeli immigration law against residents who are living in the country illegally.
Margie, who worships at Our Lady of Valor Parish, said she came to Israel 14 years ago to work as a caregiver for the elderly. She said she was like a family member to the Israeli families for whom she worked.
Her visa was cut short when she became pregnant with her daughter; she was told she would need to take her children to the Philippines if she wanted to remain in Israel to work.
She has been getting strength from prayer and speaking with the parish priest, she said, and going to confession.
“When I pray to God, I ask him to give us more strength,” she said. “We love Israel. My kids’ lives are here.”
Neither of her children speak Tagalog; they have never been to the Philippines and do not know the culture there, she said.
“I like my friends and my school here,” her son, Anton, said in Hebrew. He said he wants to go into the Israeli army when he turns 18 and be a soldier like his friends.
“I am an Israeli in every way. I don’t know what it will be like in the Philippines. I don’t want to leave,” he said.
Margie said she has tried to prepare her children for the possibility of leaving the only home they have ever known by talking about the places where she grew up and showing them pictures of the country.
Ellen, who came to Israel as a caretaker 14 years ago, is preparing to leave in July with her 10-year-old son, Umit. His father, who was from Turkey, died when Umit was 5.
Ellen overstayed her visa by nine years and has been working as a nanny and housecleaner to send back money for her four other children in the Philippines.
“It is very hard to find work there, and you make very little money, and I am not young,” said Ellen, who is Catholic. She has already started to pack, she said.
“I pray to God for his help because no one else can help me. I have to be strong for my son. I don’t know what I will do there, but we have no choice.”
Umit, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because of several incidents when the immigration police entered their apartment, said he has slowly come to terms with the fact that he and his mother will be leaving once school ends.
“It is good for me here. I have lots of friends. I feel Israeli, but what can I do? Life will be harder there,” he said.
7 May 2019
Tags: Israel Migrants
Children ride with the statue of Our Lady of Carmel and the Christ Child during a procession outside the Church of St. Joseph in Haifa, Israel, on 5 May 2019. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Israel’s second largest annual Christian gathering became a vehicle to pray for peace as tensions between Israel and Palestinians living in Gaza intensified.
The 5 May observance of the centennial of the Our Lady of Carmel procession saw 10,000 local Christians join festivities that retrace the steps of the return of a statue of Mary from Haifa’s St. Joseph Church to the Discalced Carmelite Stella Maris monastery after the end of World War I.
The statue of Our Lady of Carmel left the hilltop monastery when the Carmelite monks were ordered to evacuate by Turkish soldiers in the war’s early months. The monks and the statue returned to the monastery on the first Sunday after Easter in 1919 in a festive procession, carried out in an act of thanksgiving to Our Lady of Carmel, who Haifa’s Christian residents believed protected the city during the war.
A flower-festooned float, the central piece of the procession, carried a replica of the statue. The scene attracted the attention of non-Christians as well.
This year’s celebration became all the more meaningful as cross-border attacks flared in early May between Gaza and Israel. The violence left four Israelis and 25 Palestinians dead. Many attending the procession prayed for a cessation of the fighting and for peace.
Although a cease-fire was put in place early on 6 May, Palestinian and Israeli politicians vowed that the battle was not over.
“We believe the Virgin Mary can protect everyone regardless of race, sex or religion,” said Marlene, 36, who asked that her last name not be used, as she hitched her 5-year-old daughter on her hip so she could see the float as it passed.
Marlene touched the float with her hand, brought it to her lips and then put her fingers on her daughter’s mouth as well as a symbol of a blessing. “This is a prayer for peace for all,” she said.
Parts of some of the city’s main thoroughfares were closed as the festive procession made its way to the upper city through cafe-lined streets as patrons watched from the comfort of shaded patios. Other people stood at the edge of the road to get a glimpse of the float that was pulled by rope by a dozen people; dozens more offered a hand.
Five children sat on the float, wearing white angel wings. A few looked a bit stunned by the surroundings as their parents walked alongside. Before the procession began, people climbed atop the float to place rosaries around the outstretched hands of the statue.
Leading the procession were Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, papal nuncio to Israel, the Rev. Saverio Cannistra, superior general of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, who came from Rome, and the Rev. Raymond Abdo, the provincial of the order, who traveled from Lebanon.
“I wait for this day the whole year,” said Sausan Musa, 55, of Gush Halav, Israel, as she staked her spot at the back of the float with seven other women. “I believe in the Virgin Mary. I come to pray for my family and for the whole country.”
Azar Chacour, 51, of Haifa, but whose family is among the internally displaced from the village of Biram, Israel, said he had been coming to the procession since he was an infant and now came with his daughter Dareen, 3.
“Jesus taught us to forgive and to pray for peace. Jesus taught us to ask for justice. People here can see Mary and how she is important for all people,” he said.
Samia Ashqar, who came from Nazareth, noted that the three-hour trek to the Carmelite monastery in the upper part of Haifa was not an easy one. She said people came out of devotion and a desire to pray for peace, as they are asked to do by Mary.
“We are sacrificing ourselves, our energy, our time,” she said. “It is to encourage us to continue. One hundred years means we are here, we continue to remember our history and nobody can forget our history here.”
But for some of the young people, such as Rogeh Shihadi, 16, and his Muslim friend May, 15, the procession was a chance to spend time with friends, grab an ice cream cone and share a laugh as they huddled over their cellphones.
“I am Muslim, I am not Christian, but I believe in Mary,” said May, who declined to give her last name. “I’ve been coming here for years. But I enjoy this also, so I can hang out with my friends.”
8 April 2019
Tags: Israel Mary
A photo shows the father of Mousa Kamar, Youssef Kamar, right front, carrying the large wooden cross during the Good Friday procession on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem.
(photo: CNS/courtesy Kamar family)
For four decades, Mousa Kamar has taken his place at the head of the heavy wooden cross used during the Franciscan Good Friday procession on the Via Dolorosa.
Kamar, 55, can be seen every year at the front left of the cross, the same position where his father used to carry the cross. His grandfather also helped carry the front of the cross. The scores of old black-and-white pictures, color photographs and magazine photos Kamar has collected and uploaded onto his Facebook page attest to the long-held family tradition.
“We do this not only because it is the tradition, but because we are religious and we truly believe in it,” said Kamar, looking over some of the photographs scattered on a coffee table as he sat in his mother’s living room in Jerusalem’s Old City, near the ninth station of the cross. This is the home where he grew up and where his paternal grandmother was born.
It takes about 20 men to carry the 3-meter (3.3-yard) cross on Good Friday, and traditionally each position on the cross was taken by a representative of a different family. Kamar is the only one who has continued with the tradition. As the older generation died off, the younger members of the other families did not continue with the tradition, he said.
The cross, though still large and heavy, is smaller than the one used generations ago, he said.
Even in the pushing and shoving of the procession, which sees local Catholics and pilgrims packing the cobblestone streets of the Old City as they make their way along the Via Dolorosa, Kamar said he is able to find a space within himself where he can reflect on the significance of the moment and on the life of Jesus.
“When I am carrying the cross I remember Jesus, how he died for us and how he walked all this way by himself,” said Kamar. “We are 20 people carrying it, and he carried it by himself. Especially as we stop at each station and it is mentioned where he fell (or other detail), it makes me feel like I am following the footsteps of Jesus.”
Kamar’s parents had run a family grocery store near the eighth station of the cross, and Graciella Matulleh Kamar, today 83, recalled the pride she felt as she would stand in the doorway of their shop on Good Friday and watch as her husband carried the cross during the procession. Her husband, Kamar’s father, was killed during the 1967 war in which Israel took over control of Jerusalem from the Jordanians.
“After he was killed, I couldn’t watch the procession anymore. It was too painful,” she said.
Only when Kamar, at age 15, stepped in to fill his father’s place was she able to once again watch the procession, she said.
Kamar was 5 when his father was killed.
“Especially on Good Fridays, my mother would tell me about how my father carried the cross and that one day I would carry it, too,” he said. “The first time I carried it I couldn’t sleep the night before, I was so excited about carrying the cross and filling that space my father had had.”
Several years ago, Kamar’s oldest son, Youssef, 20, also joined the group of men carrying the cross, but during the procession, he steps aside to let others take their turn. More recently, Kamar’s youngest son, Ramez, 15, began taking part in the carrying of the cross. One of the pictures shows a 13-year-old Ramez at the end of the cross, his head barely peeping over the top of the cross among the crowd of men surrounding it. With his dark curly hair and full cheeks he looks just like his father did in earlier pictures.
“It was very exciting to be able to carry the cross,” said Youssef Kamar. “In the future maybe I and my (future) sons will continue the family tradition. Although this is a tradition, it also helps me feel closer to Jesus and what he went through before being crucified.
“It is also a burden and an honor to do this,” he added. “Since I was young, I heard stories about this family tradition and, since my father, and his father and his grandfather have done this, I think it is important to keep the tradition and to keep our religion alive.”
In preparation for the procession, Mousa Kamar spends Holy Week in prayer, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre every day after work and participating in the liturgical ceremonies, including the traditional veneration of the pillar of Jesus’ flagellation, the washing of the feet pilgrimage to the Cenacle, and holy hour on Holy Thursday at Gethsemane.
He said he uses the time to meditate and pray for Christian unity and a strengthening of Christian religious identity, which he feels is being lost.
“All week I am praying, preparing to carry the cross, linking how Jesus suffered for us to the Palestinian situation. He fought for us, sacrificed himself for us but, unfortunately, we are losing our Christianity. I always pray for that, that people will return to the foundations of Christianity,” he said noting that Christians in the Middle East are living a difficult reality with close to 50 percent of the Christian population having emigrated.
“We love Jesus and we feel we are a part of Jesus. Every corner, every stone in Jerusalem is directly about Jesus.”
26 March 2019
Salwa Salem Copty, 70, holds a photo of her father, Fares, in front of the Melkite Catholic Church of St. Jacob in Ma’alul village, Israel. Salwa, who now lives in Cana, is fighting for the right to visit her father’s grave in the Ma’alul cemetery, which is now enclosed in an Israeli army base.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
The destroyed Arab village of Ma’alul, located just outside of Nazareth, does not appear on any Israeli map, but it is etched on Salwa Salem Copty’s heart.
Copty’s widowed mother and her three older siblings, along with other residents, were expelled from the village in July 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence. Copty was born 16 days later.
Copty laments that she has no memories of Ma’alul, but she clings to the stories her relatives have told her about what life was like there. Now, at age 70, she still visits the site of the village, drinking coffee and eating pastries with her children and grandchildren in the shadow of the reconstructed Melkite Catholic Church of St. Jacob.
But she is unable to visit her father’s grave because an Israeli air force base was constructed around the Christian cemetery shortly after the residents’ expulsion, and they have never been permitted to enter the base to go to the cemetery. Her father was killed a few months prior to the expulsion by a Jewish militia bullet and is buried in the cemetery.
“They told me father was in heaven and I would look at his picture and would see a cloud in the sky that looked like the picture, and I would think that my father is looking at me and is speaking to me, and I would talk to him,” said Copty, a retired social worker. She has enlarged the photograph of her father and keeps it in her home, still confiding her deepest worries and concerns to it.
“I am appealing to all sense of humanity for this request to visit the grave. I want to whisper on his grave, as if he will hear that he has a daughter named Salwa who misses him, just to touch the grave, the dust, his soul, the place where he walked, even where maybe he stepped. That drives me crazy,” she said.
Since 2000, Copty repeatedly has made formal requests to gain access to the cemetery to visit her family members buried there, but her appeals to various Israeli authorities through multiple channels have gone unhandled.
“I dream about this grave. I’m begging. I just want to visit my father’s grave before I die and it’s too late,” Copty said. “You can’t just erase someone’s memory.”
On 13 January Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, filed a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court on behalf of Copty and her 93-year-old uncle, Subhi Mansour, to allow them to visit the cemetery. Mansour is the only living displaced resident of the village who can identify the location of the grave of Copty’s father, Fares Salem.
The petition, which will be heard by the court 24 June, was filed against the Israeli defense and interior ministries and the Israel Land Authority and demands that Copty and Mansour be permitted to visit the cemetery. The petition also seeks clarification regarding why the Interior Ministry and ILA have not been required to preserve Ma’alul’s Christian cemetery and protect it from desecration or, alternatively, why it is not allowing the petitioners or anyone on their behalf to maintain and protect the cemetery from desecration.
“The desecration of and failure to maintain the cemetery, and the failure of Israeli authorities to respond to Copty’s appeals within an appropriate and humane time frame, are all violations of the constitutional right to dignity -- both of the living and of the deceased -- and a violation of her right to grieve at the family grave,” Adalah said in the petition.
This is the first time a case relating to access to a cemetery located inside a military base has been brought to court.
The government ministries did not reply to requests for a response from Catholic News Service.
Mansour told CNS: “We haven’t been able to visit the cemetery since 1948. ... It’s not just us, everyone has family buried in the cemetery. Everyone should be able to visit their dead, place flowers on their graves.”
Copty’s oldest daughter, Odna -- which means “return” in Arabic -- accompanies her mother on visits.
“Because I have this name, I feel this village is always with me,” she said. “I always live my mother’s pain and suffering. Sometimes I wake up at night and she is crying to the picture.”
Along with the other descendants of the expelled families, Copty and her family return to St. Jacob Church, which they restored, on the second day of Easter for Mass, and her children attended the yearly summer camps held at the site to remember their village.
Today the remains of the destroyed village are overgrown, and the overturned rocks peek out from under rolling mounds of green grass, which has sprouted after a rainy winter, but Mansour can still point out where he lived and where Copty’s parents lived. He identifies one of the village’s wells amid the jumbled rocks.
Together with another niece who is an engineer, Mansour recently mapped out the pre-1948 village and, next to the church, they placed a large sign of the area marked with every family’s home.
They also placed name markers next to every pile of rubble to identify the homes on the ground, but someone tore down all the name signs.
14 December 2018
Tags: Israel Melkite
Angeline Fernando and Vangie Lapada, foreign workers from the Philippines, take a selfie wearing Santa hats at the Christmas market in the central bus station in Tel Aviv, Israel. The market offers an opportunity for foreigners to buy decorations for Christmas in the Jewish state.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
For foreign workers and other nonlocal Christians living in Israel, celebrating Christmas far from loved ones in a country where Christians are a minority can be a difficult time.
Used to a festive Christmas season back home in the Philippines, many of the Filipino caretakers who work with mainly Jewish families have learned to adjust their expectations.
“We are missing our families. We are used to seeing all the Christmas decorations everywhere,” said Vangie Lapada, 51, who has been working in Israel for five years. She is a caretaker in the Golan Heights in northern Israel, where there are few Christians.
But as Israel’s population has become more diverse to include foreign caretakers, migrant workers and asylum seekers -- many of whom are Christians living in cities where Jewish residents are the majority -- Jewish Israelis also have adjusted to a new reality. One of the changing points has also been the arrival of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union where the New Year celebration, Novy God, uses many of the usual Christmas symbols for the nonreligious holiday.
On a mid-December Sunday, Lapada used her day off to travel to Tel Aviv with a friend. On the fourth floor of the cavernous Tel Aviv central bus station, they visited the pop-up Christmas market with its twinkling Christmas lights and festive Santa Claus apparel. A large banner in the center of the station announced the location of the market.
The stalls were set up several years ago by Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union wanting to openly celebrate the Novy God holiday. The market also has provided a place for Filipino foreign workers and others to enjoy some trappings of Christmas.
Novy God was the only nonpolitical holiday permitted by the communist regime in the former Soviet Union, which incorporated some customary Christmas symbols -- such as the tree -- into the celebration to placate people. The communist government also added parallel symbols from traditional folktales such as the Snow Maiden and Grandfather Winter. All religious celebrations were forbidden under the communist regime.
“This (market) makes me happy because it brings a bit of our tradition,” said Lapada as she and Angeline Fernando, 48, snapped selfies of themselves wearing Santa hats in front of a white plastic Christmas tree covered with decorations. English Christmas songs played from a stereo, adding to the atmosphere.
Lapada said that, in Israel, the main focus of their celebrations is the Filipino parishes in the larger cities and in the homes of friends who are not live-in caretakers, but she still misses the general atmosphere of Christmas in the Philippines.
“My employer is a religious Jew, so we don’t have a tree in the apartment. I come here to take pictures and feel the spirit of Christmas. These decorations are part of Christmas for us,” said Lapada.
Fernando, who works in Tel Aviv caring for a Jewish woman originally from France, said her employer enjoys the Christmas lights, and they combine Hanukkah and Christmas decorations in the apartment.
“Every day we have visitors, and they all say how beautiful the decorations are because of the colors. But I come here to see the trees, and I feel like I am in the Philippines,” Fernando said.
Because of its unique decorations made in Russia and other high-quality Christmas items, the market even sometimes attracts local Christians who live in areas where other Christmas decorations are sold.
“My mother wanted to buy the special glass decorations they have here instead of the plastic ornaments sold in Jerusalem,” said Rami, a Palestinian Christian from Jerusalem who declined to give his last name. His mother went from one stall to another, looking over delicate, hand-decorated ornaments nestled in boxes; larger ornaments made to look like snowflakes; and china Santa Claus/Grandfather Winter dolls.
Vasilisa Gorbichova, 9, who moved with her parents from Russia one-and-a-half years ago, helped her mother, Olga Alaeva, 35, decide which lights to buy. Alaeva is Christian and her husband is Jewish. For Vasilisa, the decorations were all about Novy God.
“I love the night of Novy God. I get presents from Grandfather Winter,” she said. “My favorite thing is to put up the decorations. My friends accept it, they know me and understand that I am Russian, and this is our tradition.”
Yulia, 28, a seller from Tel Aviv who moved to Israel from Russia three years ago, said the market runs a brisk business in the weeks leading up to Christmas and Novy God. Sellers have never experienced any negative response from Jewish Israelis walking by the market, she said.
“In Tel Aviv, there are a lot of people from different countries, so it is a very tolerant city,” she said. “This (market) is the best place to work on the holiday.”
Diana Giraldo, 28, a Colombian who moved to Israel this fall, was preparing for her first Christmas away from home.
“It is very hard and sad to celebrate Christmas without my family, so I am very happy to see this market, because I didn’t know where I was going to get my decorations from,” Giraldo said. She heard about the market through a Facebook page, she said.
“This is our tradition. This is what we are used to,” she said. “Now we can go home and put up our decorations.”
22 October 2018
Tags: Israel Tel Aviv
St. Paul VI left an enduring legacy on the Holy Land. (photo: CNS)
For Holy Land Christians, St. Paul VI left behind a legacy of Catholic institutions to serve and strengthen the community.
On a more personal level, for two Catholic families living in the Old City of Jerusalem, he left behind a special blessing and a relic which has taken on more significance for them after his canonization by Pope Francis on 14 October.
During his January 1964 visit to the Old City, which then was under Jordanian rule, St. Paul VI made a spontaneous stop to the home of a sick man to hear his confession. Upon leaving the man’s home, he was received with a traditional cup of coffee from Fairuz Orfali and greeted by Laila Soudah, neighbors who shared the same courtyard.
The Orfali family has kept the plain white cup safely stored in a felt-lined glass and wooden box while the Soudahs have photographs of the visit.
After the pope took a symbolic sip of the coffee, Orfali, in the old local tradition of welcoming honored guests, poured the remains of the coffee at the pope’s feet.
The cup remains as it was: coffee grounds still at the bottom and around its side.
“It gives me chills now, especially that he has been canonized,” said Soudah’s daughter, Hania, 52, who had not yet been born during the visit. Her oldest sister Hanady was blessed by the future saint as were others in the courtyard.
“This was the first visit of a pope to the Holy Land. My grandparents, mother, father, our neighbors welcomed him in the traditional way. This is now something to be passed down generations of our family,” Hania said.
“Who am I that the pope should come to visit us?” her father, Issa, 84, said as he leafed through a folder with photographs of the visit. “We moved flower pots so there would be room. We were very honored he visited our house.”
During the visit, St. Paul VI called for the establishment of social rehabilitation and development projects. His call eventually led to the founding of Bethlehem University, Ephpheta Institute for hearing-impaired children, Tantur Ecumenical Institute, and Notre Dame of Jerusalem Pilgrimage Center.
As early as the 1940s, the future pope -- Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini -- in his capacity as Pope Paul XII’s assistant responsible for displaced Palestinian refugees, had championed the Pontifical Mission Society’s relief efforts and continued to do so throughout his papacy.
At a November 1948 meeting in the Vatican, Msgr. Montini named the head of Catholic Near East Welfare Association at the time, Msgr. Thomas J. McMahon, to lead a papal mission specifically for displaced persons in Palestine which became the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. Pope Pius entrusted the mission to CNEWA.
As pope, he continued to show a deep commitment to CNEWA’s work by beginning his pontificate with the historic trip to the Holy Land, which he called a “pilgrimage of prayer and penance.”
“He wanted to establish such institutions that would help empower the situation of the local (Christian) community in the Holy Land,” said Joseph Hazboun, CNEWA regional director in Jerusalem.
The apostolic delegate in Jerusalem at the time, then-Father Pio Laghi, was a close friend of the pope and teamed with CNEWA and other organizations to make the pontiff’s ideas a reality.
“At that time, we were under Jordan rule with a majority of Muslims so for us these were very important,” said John Orfali, Laila Soudah’s son. “It made us feel that we belong here.”
The establishment of the Bethlehem University provided for the first time a school of higher learning for young Palestinians so they would not have to go abroad to study and boost emigration. The three other organizations continue their original mission, Hazboun said.
The initiatives St. Paul VI promoted testified to his belief in the church as an instrument of reconciliation and hope, CNEWA said in a statement about the canonization.
“St. Pope Paul VI left a large legacy and an example for many to follow in his quiet and humble way,” Hazboun said. “Really what we need now is humble people who can set aside the difficulties and disagreements that have accumulated over 1,000 years creating divisions which are due to political issues rather than theological issues. The unfortunate division still continues making it difficult to achieve unity.”
A year following his pilgrimage, Pope Paul VI issued the groundbreaking declaration “Nostra Aetate” on relations of the church to non-Christian religions.
“He was the continuation of the revolution but a completely different personality,” Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Interreligious Affairs, said of St. Paul VI. He noted that most Israelis -- unfairly in his opinion -- have a mixed response to St. Paul VI’s Holy Land visit because he refused to meet with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem and met them instead in the northern city of Megiddo.
“It was seen as a great thing by Israel, but as it did not lead to anywhere, no establishment of relations, there was a sense in Israel of a letdown,” Rabbi Rosen explained. “With the rapid pace of Pope John XXIII, there had been expectations which were not met. But I feel he really tried to move forward.”
He delivered a warm speech in Megiddo, said Rabbi Rosen, testing the waters but needing to be cautious because there was negative reaction from the Arab world. Still, in 1974, he established the Pontifical Commission for Relations with the Jews.
CNEWA also recalled the new saint’s desire to bring unity across religious lines.
“We remain deeply grateful for the love and passion he brought to his papacy, and which he shared so selflessly with the suffering peoples in the Holy Land, a place now so fraught with division, hardship and violence,” CNEWA said it its statement. “So many of those we serve need his prayerful intercession now, more than ever.”
The video below, from British Pathé, shows highlights of Paul VI’s historic 1964 pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
22 May 2018
A French pilgrim prays during a special service for peace in the Holy Land on 19 May at the Church of St. Stephen in Jerusalem. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Even in times of violence and despair, the power of joint prayer for peace can be felt, said Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Local Palestinians, religious and foreign worshippers gathered at the Dominican Church of St. Stephen on 19 May, answering the archbishop’s call for a joint peace prayer in the face of 16 May violence along the Gaza-Israeli border, in which 62 Palestinians were killed and more than 2,000 were injured.
“We feel helpless for the killing of innocent people and the obstinate refusal to find alternative solutions,” said Archbishop Pizzaballa. “We must go through the strength of prayer to still believe we can change [the situation] and our land will one day be with peace and justice. We want fear and suspicion to give way to knowledge, where differences are opportunities.”
Though it may not be possible to change things as one would like in the wider world, the faithful must continue to try to change things in their own smaller communities, he said.
Their faith, he said, will give “courage to defend justice.”
Palestinian demonstrations along the border began 31 March, protesting the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and marking the 70th anniversary of what Palestinians call Al Naqba, or catastrophe — the establishment of the State of Israel. Israel says it has been using live ammunition to prevent Palestinian protesters — whom they say are being incited by Hamas — from breaking through the Gaza border fence, raising fears that they would carry out terrorist attacks on neighboring Jewish villages.
Rosary Sister Virginia Habib, director of the Catechetical Center of the Latin Patriarchate, said during difficult circumstances such as these, she urges the young people “not to forgo hope.”
“We are surrounded by lots of violence in all the Middle East, not just here; we as Christians should not feel frustrated — our Christian faith tells us that the Lord will help us defeat death,” said Habib.
At Pentecost, the faithful are still in the spirit of the Resurrection, she said, and there is hope that evil will not have the final word in their daily life.
“We live our lives, and we continue to come here to pray and keep praying to offer all our mortifications so that peace will take place,” Sister Habib said. “Peace will not happen in our land until peace has taken place in our own heart.”
She said she tells young people that, as Christians, they are called upon to react to the injustices they see following the teachings of Jesus. She said they listen to her because she is living the same experiences as they are.
LaSallian Christian Brother Peter Iorlano said Christians must be witnesses to peace, especially those living and working among Jews and Muslims, to speak out about injustices but in a “level-headed” way.
“You don’t want to fuel the fire,” he said. “You have to be aware of your [surroundings] and how we can be seduced into being violent. We need to be really self-critical and conscientious and say: This is not just. In a way everyone is suffering but … people with power are the ones who can make a difference.”
Archbishop Pizzaballa told Catholic News Service the Christian community draws strength from supporting one another and not allowing the conflict to enter in their hearts. The strength of their daily life, taking care of their children and family, is what frees them to have hope and be positive, he said.
“Life is difficult, but we must always pray for peace,” said Faiyad Elias, 55, of Jerusalem.
Christy Bandak, 43, of Bethlehem, said the only hope people have is in their faith.
“Negotiations have failed, human means have failed. … Peace is a gift from God. That is the only way out,” said Bandak. “Christians, if they are really Christians, are peacemakers. When you hear [about] the bombings and the shootings, one can be afraid. It is a reason to pray to strengthen your faith. We can’t fall into the abyss of desperation.”
Souad Handal, 49, of Bethlehem, West Bank, said as Palestinian Christians, they experience the same injustices as Muslim Palestinians, said but though the situation is getting harder, they do not believe in violence.
“Palestinians want our freedom [but] we [Christians] believe in Jesus as a peacemaker,” Handal said. “We ask for the peace of the land. We can ask only God to help us.”
Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, who also attended the prayer service, said Christians must raise their voices in the call for justice and be ready to offer themselves as bridges of peace.
13 December 2017
Tags: Jerusalem Palestinians
Palestinians walk past an inflatable Santa Claus on 12 December in Bethlehem, West Bank.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
Not far from where journalists lined up for positions outside the guard tower at Rachel’s Tomb in anticipation of confrontations between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, life in Bethlehem continued. Trendy young Bethlehem residents and visitors were lunching on vegetarian pizza, quinoa and salmon salad, and sandwiches with names like Sexy Morning at the popular Zuwadeh Cafe.
“No benefit will come (of the demonstrations), but people are getting their frustrations out like they have the right to do. It’s the least they can do,” said Mahmoud Hamideh, 25.
“People go and throw stones, but then life goes back to normal,” agreed his cousin, Saleh al-Jundi, 31, who just moved back to Bethlehem from Abu Dhabi with his wife and 14-month-old son. “But this time I am not sure after what Trump said.”
Palestinians leaders called for three days of protests following U.S. President Donald Trump’s 6 December official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and demonstrations have broken out in the West Bank, Jordan and other parts of the Muslim world.
Palestinians reported one killed and at least 35 injured in clashes in the Gaza Strip, with some 115 Palestinians injured in all protests 8 December. In Bethlehem, Israeli soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at rock-throwing demonstrators.
Jerusalem is home to holy sites sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews and is contested as the capital of Israel and a future Palestinian state. The city has been a key point of contention in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, which have been on hold since 2014.
Palestinians say that with his declaration, Trump has removed the United States from the status of neutral mediator.
Though concerned that a continuation of the hostilities may affect the busy Christmas season, shopkeepers and others in the tourism industry in Bethlehem said on 8 December that, for now, pilgrims are not canceling reservations.
“But people will be afraid and will think we have a war here,” said 21-year-old Marianna Musallam, who is Greek Orthodox, as she arranged oversized rosaries meant to be hung on the wall. “But we are always in war. Nothing has changed. Trump’s speech was not for good. Jerusalem is for us Palestinians. It is not possible to share.”
Several guests were busy checking messages on their smartphones in the lobby of the Franciscan Casa Nova Guest House, just steps from the Church of the Nativity, and an older couple dropped off their keys on their way out.
“Until now everything is good,” said Issam Matar, who was staffing the reception desk. “But no one knows what will happen in the future.”
Restaurant manager Mahmoud Abu Hamad, 30, a Muslim, said the Catholic owner had told him to close on 7 December for a one-day strike called by Palestinian leaders. He said they were not concerned about losing customers over Christmas.
“What we have to lose is bigger than anything. (Jerusalem), the capital of Palestine, is bigger than anything,” he said. “In the end, Jerusalem will be the capital of Palestine. We don't care what (Trump) says.”
Others, like a Catholic shop owner and a Muslim in the tourism industry, both of whom did not want their names used, said the violence would not help the Palestinian situation.
“If people are smart they would not go out to the streets,” said the Muslim. “With a new conflict, we will lose more kids just because the leaders said to go out into the streets. They should send their own sons, not our sons, who don’t even know what they are fighting for.”
Inside the Church of the Nativity, a large part of which has been cordoned off due to ongoing restoration, pilgrims stood patiently in line, waiting to enter the creche that marks the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth.
Latvian pilgrim Janis Bulisi, 43, said he and his wife had disconnected from the internet since arriving in the Holy Land and had vaguely heard something about Trump’s announcement and the ensuing demonstrations.
“We are here on our pilgrimage. We have felt no tensions. We are just excited to be in the place where Jesus was born,” he said.
“Honestly, I did consider canceling the trip, but after thinking about it I saw the violence was more (in other areas), so I took the chance on still coming, though there is a lot of hesitation, nervousness and uncertainty,” said Daniele Coda, 34, of Italy.
Stella Korsah, 56, said though her group had seen some demonstrators on their way from Jericho to Jerusalem, they had not seen violence.
“I have been waiting for this (pilgrimage) for my entire life and I had the opportunity now,” said Korsah, who is a member of St. Catherine of Genoa Catholic Church in Brooklyn, New York. “I was nervous listening to the news ... but I hope for peace ... and remember my purpose for coming here. We serve a living God, and I know peace will prevail.”
In the courtyard outside the Church of St. Catherine, a Spanish group from the lay ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation prepared, in song, for their Mass.
“We are here on our pilgrimage. We were a bit worried, but our priest reassured us,” said Cristina Gallego, 53, who directed the singing. “We pray for peace. Christ is here. Here one comes to see, touch and feel their faith.”
13 October 2017
The Rev. Wladyslaw Brzezinski blesses tourists outside the Church of the Visitation on 5 October in Jerusalem. Franciscan Father Brzezinski has been superior at the church for the past 10 years.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
On his first pilgrimage to the Holy Land just at the outbreak of the intifada, the Rev. Wladyslaw Brzezinski was awed by the quiet contemplation with which a fellow friar was able to pray under a sprawling sabra cactus in the courtyard of the Church of the Visitation.
Little did he know that his life’s path would eventually lead him back to this Franciscan shrine which, according to Christian tradition, marks the home of Elizabeth and Zachariah and commemorates the meeting between Mary her cousin, Elizabeth, when Mary recited the Magnificat as Elizabeth announced she was pregnant.
Franciscan Father Brzezinski, who wanted to be sent as a missionary to Africa, followed his vow of obedience and remained in Poland. In 2003, his superiors sent him to the Holy Land, where the Franciscan custos and his staff serve as guardians of the Catholic holy places and welcome pilgrims.
Upon his arrival, Father Brzezinski, now 53, spent seven months serving at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and four years at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, three of them as the superior. But for the past 10 years, he has been superior at the Church of the Visitation.
Nestled at the top of a steep stairway in the sleepy Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Karem, on the outskirt of the southern part of the city, the shrine where he and one other Franciscan live is far from the local Christian community.
“The Church of the Nativity and the Holy Sepulchre are very important for Christians,” said Father Brzezinski. “In the Holy Sepulcher, (religious) life is 24 hours a day ... it is very special for this, but it is also a very difficult life.”
Working as superior at the Holy Sepulchre, with its rigorous prayer schedule and hundreds of daily visitors, can be very trying, he said, noting that while other friars have a week off every five weeks, the superior does not.
Coming to serve at this smaller shrine was like coming to a “sanatorium,” he said, where he now has time for his own prayers and to pray for others who have asked for his prayers. He also has time to spend a few moments with some of the pilgrims who visit the shrine.
“When I am looking at people, 70 years old, going up those stairs slowly — those are holy people, they want to touch these stones, the story of the New Testament,” he said.
As the Franciscans celebrate the 800th year anniversary of their presence in the Holy Land, the sacred role the 300 friars from 34 countries continue to play is a blessing, he said.
“We are continuing our mission until now. We have never followed the politics (of the time) but we have always been here for the holy sites and the pilgrims and (local Christians) who need us. It is a very important mission,” he said.
The Church of the Visitation is one of 29 shrines in the care of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. On a busy day, the church receives up to 20 pilgrimage groups, he said, though some days there are none. Father Brzezinski and the other friar have begun to work on the garden to make it more inviting for pilgrims and visitors, so they will stay for a bit longer than the average half-hour visit and contemplate the miracle of the place, he said. Many of the Jewish neighbors also come to visit and, often on Saturdays, Jewish Israelis from around the country are among the visitors.
“They are very kind people, very gentle people,” he said. “We have the occasion to have a meeting here, like Mary and Elizabeth. It is a very good occasion to be together.”
In this way, he said, the shrine seems to still reflect the meeting between Mary, representing the New Testament, and Elizabeth, representing the Old Testament.
In a crypt below the modern day church, the “rock of concealment” marks the spot where tradition holds St. John and Elizabeth were hidden from Herod’s soldiers. The compound also consists of Byzantine-era ruins and a well-preserved Crusader hall.
Following the Muslim defeat of the Crusaders, the church fell into disrepair, though it was under the care of Armenian monks for a time. The Franciscans, who returned to the Holy Land in 1217, purchased the property from an Arab family in the mid-16th century.
Recently, a group of Polish-American pilgrims admired the mosaic verses from the Magnificat on a wall of the courtyard. One woman from the group spied Father Brzezinski and asked him for his blessing, and others in her group quickly formed a line behind her.
The priest said it is these moments that are most precious to him.
“I want to understand their life, why they are asking for a blessing. Sometimes they tell me, sometimes it is between them and God,” he said.