Caught in the Middle

Israel’s Arab Christians carry on despite crises of identity

by Michele Chabin

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On an unseasonably warm day in late November, thousands of worshipers from all over Israel, Palestine and Jordan jammed the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth to celebrate Mass. Radiant sunshine explained only in part the glow on their faces — the rest was joy. This was no ordinary liturgy, but the rite of beatification of a Palestinian woman who in 1880 founded the Dominican Sisters of the Most Holy Rosary of Jerusalem, commonly known as the Rosary Sisters.

Blessed Marie Alphonsine Danil Ghattas was born Soultaneh Maria Ghattas in Jerusalem in 1843. Called to the religious life, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition at the age of 14 and, after her profession, worked among the people of Bethlehem. With the encouragement and assistance of her spiritual director, Father Joseph Tannous, this zealous catechist and educator eventually established a religious community of women dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Today, Blessed Marie Alphonsine’s spiritual daughters run schools, catechetical programs, clinics and orphanages throughout the Middle East, often under the most trying of circumstances.

The Mass reached a crescendo when a huge portrait of the newly beatified was unveiled. The worshipers burst into song and thunderous applause. Some, including more than 300 Rosary Sisters, wiped away tears of joy and gratitude.

“The fact the Holy Father recognizes the sanctity of a Palestinian Arab nun draws the attention of the world’s Catholics to the Holy Land,” said Archbishop Elias Chacour of the Melkite Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and all Galilee. “Church buildings are important, but the human church, the living Christians here, are much more important.”

The city of Nazareth, which lies 16 miles from the Sea of Galilee, is located in Israel’s North District and serves as an economic center. Most of its 65,000 residents are Arabs, roughly two-thirds of whom are Muslim and a third Christian. Nazareth is also a part of the Galilee, a region that includes the numerous cities, towns and villages near and along the lake’s shores. Steeped in history, it is in the Galilee’s verdant hills and valleys that Jesus lived, preached and performed miracles.

Today, about half a million Arab Israeli citizens call the Galilee home. Christians, Druze and Muslims, they live together with their Jewish neighbors, who also number about half a million, making it the country’s most diverse region.

Unlike the millions of Palestinian Arabs who live in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, Arabs who live in the Galilee are Israeli citizens and enjoy its benefits and liberties and also share in its responsibilities. They do not have to go through checkpoints to get to school or work, and with their Israeli passports, they can travel unrestricted overseas. They also have access to a generally higher standard of living, including better education and health care, than anywhere else in the Middle East.

But as Israelis, the Galilee’s indigenous Arabs struggle to navigate their complex identity in an all-too-often hostile world. They are rooted in their ancestral land, but they remain ambivalent about their country.

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Tags: Middle East Israel Christianity Cultural Identity Christian-Muslim relations