Our Lady of Guadalupe – Of Bir Zeit?

text and photographs by George Martin

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On Thanksgiving Day, 1994, I arrived in Jerusalem after a grueling flight from the United States. As I was checking into my hotel, the desk phone rang. To my surprise I was told that the call was for me. It was a friend extending an invitation to join him for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. This was being given by the parishioners of the Catholic parish in the Palestinian village of Bir Zeit for Americans working for development agencies in the Holy Land. I was groggy, but happy to accept the invitation.

It turned out to be not one feast but two: a complete American Thanksgiving Day meal, with turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, and a full Arab meal with many plates of salads, chicken and rice. About 40 of us, half Americans and half local Palestinian Catholics, gathered around a long table laden with plates and cutlery.

The Palestinian women who prepared the meal were rightfully proud of their mastery of American cooking, and I took a second helping to demonstrate my appreciation. But my appetite was really for the Palestinian dishes, especially for a platter of rice flavored with ground lamb, nuts and spices. I indulged myself with a third helping of the Palestinian dishes and at the end of the meal felt more stuffed than the turkey.

In subsequent visits to Bir Zeit I learned more about this hospitable parish. Located on the West Bank, Bir Zeit is 13 miles north of Jerusalem. About 1,500 of its 2,500 inhabitants are Christians, most of whom are Latin (Roman) Catholic or Greek Orthodox. The most imposing building in the village is the Catholic church. On first seeing it I wondered why a rather modest village needed such a of large church. Was it simply the result of a pastor’s “edifice complex”? Even more surprising was the mosaic image of Our Lady of Guadalupe towering behind the altar. What was the Patroness of the Americas doing on the West Bank?

Bir Zeit, which means “well of olive [oil],” dates back before the birth of Christ. Local Christians believe their Christian community originated when the apostles went on mission “throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 1:8). Bir Zeit, with its terraced hills lined with olive trees, lies between ancient Judea and Samaria. After the Arab-Islamic conquest of the region in the seventh century, Christians living in the Holy Land retained their Christian faith.

In 1943, an Italian priest, Father Anton Buso, was appointed pastor of the village’s Catholic parish. Five years later this once sleepy village swelled in size as Palestinian refugees fled their native villages and towns during the Arab-Israeli conflict. The parish needed a new church building and Father Buso decided the construction of such an edifice would provide job-training and employment, thereby alleviating the poverty that afflicted the area. The larger the church, the priest reasoned, the more jobs the project would provide. And a vast church would make possible Father Buso’s dream “to gather all Christians in.” So he began touring Europe, giving lectures on the Holy Land while raising money for the new church. Construction started slowly in 1952, as the men of Bir Zeit began to learn masonry and other building skills. Even today, thanks to the initiative of Father Buso, Bir Zeitis are respected as skilled builders.

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