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In Destroyed Israeli Village, Exiled Residents Unite at the Church

A man rings the church bell before Easter Monday Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Iqrit, Israel, on 13 April. The residents were expelled by the Israeli army in 1948 and have never been able to permanently return to the village. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill) 

15 Apr 2015 – By Judith Sudilovsky

IQRIT, Israel (CNS) — For the elders of Iqrit, their biggest regret in life is not having been able to raise their children together.

On 13 April, they congregated with the younger generations in the old Church of St. Mary for Easter Monday Mass in this destroyed Melkite village perched on a sloping hill in Western Galilee.

As youngsters, they and their families left the village in October 1948, shortly after the Israeli war of independence, at the behest of the fledgling Israeli army, which said they would be allowed to return after 15 days. The villagers had hoisted the white flag atop their church as the soldiers entered, and the village priest received them with a Bible, and salt and bread as signs of peace and rapport.

But as Israel, which uses the Jewish calendar for holidays, is set to celebrate its 67th independence day on 23 April, the people of Iqrit are still waiting to return to their village.

A July 1951 Supreme Court decision ruled residents could return due to a lack of evacuation orders. Five months after the court’s decision, formal evacuation orders were issued. On Christmas Eve 1951, Iqrit was destroyed except for the church.

Villagers were finally allowed to re-enter their village in the summer of 1971.

The tightly knit group of some 126 families eventually dispersed among nearby villages, but they have never lost their connection to their town or given up their struggle to return. They continue to celebrate a monthly Mass at the church together, to teach their children, grandchildren, and now the newest great-grandchildren to love their Iqrit roots through gatherings and summer camps. They have come to bury their dead at the cemetery here, and now the elders say that they, too, will be buried here. At least then, they say, they will be allowed to return to Iqrit.

“Even our children don’t know each other. It is sad,” said Abdullah Haddad, 85, as he recounts the story of his secret courtship with his wife, Vidad, 83. Their relationship was disrupted because of what followed after the evacuation, and Abdullah Haddad went to work in Jerusalem. But Vidad Haddad said she put off other marriage proposals and waited 10 years until she and Abdullah could marry.

Haddad said he has not yet lost hope of returning — if not him, then his grandchildren.

Sitting together in a tin shack used as a reception hall with his brother Ibrahim and some childhood friends, Ayoub Ayoub, 76, recalled Easters in the village, when the girls would prepare colored eggs and the boys would sneak around to steal a look at the girls they fancied.

“These are memories we don’t forget,” he said. “When we are here, we are like one family. It is a happy and sad occasion to come here. The only thing I ask is that when God takes me, he allows my soul to return here and not to Rameh as a refugee.”

Though several Israel politicians — and even nearby Jewish communities — have expressed support for their cause, officially Israel has not relented.

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Tags: Israel Holy Land Christians Melkite Greek Catholic Church