Easter in Bethlehem: Rejoicing in the land of Israeli Catholic Arabs

Friday, April 14, 2017 - Updated: 6:00 pm

Visiting the Holy Land was never on my bucket list.

My feelings changed — but only after I returned from a trip taken there four Easters ago.

My sister asked if I was interested in a trip to the Middle East. Her son was working in Israel — actually, the Palestinian West Bank — for a year. It would be the only way she’d see him.

“It’s not on my bucket list,” I said.

“Mine either,” she said.

We booked the flights around Easter, when I had time off. At the time, we thought it was happenstance.

This trip challenged what I thought I knew — about the seemingly endless and often scary conflicts of the Middle East and my Catholic roots. It certainly provided an appreciation for minority viewpoints — including the Christians living in the nation of Israel. In today’s confusing world, it’s possible to meet an Israeli Christian Arab — and we happened upon a few.  

Headline news from the Middle East stresses Jewish-Muslim tensions. These headlines have a way of pushing far into the background the idea that Christians, work, live and worship in Bethlehem, alongside some secular residents. So despite the fact that Bethlehem literally served as the cradle of Christianity, I didn’t expect to find an active Catholic parish as opposed to a shrine celebrated primarily at Christmas time. Still, I expected to find flocks of international pilgrims at Easter.

But I didn’t expect, on a balmy Easter morning, to find a Catholic church with filled pews, a Mass celebrated in Arabic with beautiful flowers, guitars and voices. A feeling of welcome and hospitality. A contagious joy. 

The Mass ironically felt both familiar and new, and gave rise to the meaning of being Catholic in the broadest sense: to the idea of the universality. Even in an area known for its interfaith tensions, we participated in a global spiritual celebration. Easter Sunday found us celebrating at the Church of St. Catherine, where saints are depicted in artworks around the courtyard, including my favorite, the unknown saint, St. Incognita. (Like the thoughtful recognition evoked by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, St. Incognita serves to remind us of all the saints we don’t know, as well as those still walking among us.)

For me, Bethlehem’s Manger Square conjured the idea of the same pastoral setting that might have been found 2,000 years ago. A wonderful image, but not reality.

A huge Crusade-era building houses different churches, different denominations, all tucked into nooks within the village walls. Inside, these nooks somehow become spacious. A Manger Square entrance at the Orthodox Church of the Nativity is small enough so that even a short person must stoop to enter. The point, we’re told, was to keep Crusaders out so they couldn’t ride in and brandish sabers from horseback.   

The door between one of many Franciscan properties and the Church of the Nativity leads us to the courtyard to the Church of St. Catherine, where the Star of Bethlehem is carved into the end of each pew. We explore the church, with its reflecting white marble, vaulted ceilings and radiant stained glass behind the altar. We pick a pew and squeeze closer together, smiling at our neighbors, as more people join us. The congregation rejoices in Arabic, yet we can follow the flow of the Mass. A small boy in the pew in front of us wears a burgundy cape, giving new meaning to the superhero term “caped crusader.”

A mosque anchors the other side of Bethlehem. The birthplace of Jesus lies within the West Bank — the Palestinian Territories. Before passing through the security checkpoint to Bethlehem, Israelis are warned that it is illegal and life-threatening to go farther. Palestinians, on the other hand, must be contained by the separation wall that allows no easy passage for them into Jerusalem. As tourists, we pass relatively easily but only certain taxis and drivers can flow between checkpoints.  

Holy Saturday was our first stop in Manger Square — and marked our encounter with a Palestinian rally for Land Day, a commemoration of a March 30, 1976, Israeli announcement to appropriate Palestinian-owned lands in Galilee. The Land Day Rally was more bluster than fear-inducing, with flag-waving, shouting and shooting into the sky from a Jeep. But we also heard and felt the quiet desperation as struggling vendors cajoled to make a sale. Several people share that tourism is foundering, a decline that takes a tremendous toll on a people who, for centuries, have counted on income from pilgrims.

Before this trip, when I thought of the Holy Land, I thought it as holding the roots of Christianity, as the land of Jesus and history. I did not consider that people — ordinary people — are trying to live out a Christian — a Catholic — life in a landscape that can change with the toss of a rock. 

I did not consider the challenges of a Catholic family who, for generations, sold handcrafted wooden and tile statues and creches. The store was nearly empty; he invited us to his home to see more rosaries. His son showed us the long scar down the middle of his chest, a reminder of his heart surgery. The owner asked us to share his story with our government, to ask for their help. I thought of Bethlehem, of the entire Holy Land, in terms of Jesus, in terms of ancient and contemporary Jewish and Muslim skirmishes, not in terms of Christians eking out a modern life in a land where now both job options and tourists may be scarce.

Over the course of a year, a million foreigners will visit Bethlehem, according to the Dec. 19, 2016 issue of the National Catholic Reporter. Yet, the number of Christians living in Bethlehem and its neighborhoods are dwindling. Christians comprised 86 percent of this population in 1950; the National Catholic Reporter says now only 12 percent of the area’s residents are Christian. The flight of Christians may have more to do with the difficulties of living in Palestine Territories than of discrimination against Christians, according to the article. In my eyes, it’s not clear if the checkpoints and separation wall are meant to keep people in or to keep people out.

The difficulties are not just religious and political. The land itself is a stark place of extremes, with lush oases and the sparkling Mediterranean within eyesight of red dust, volcanic rock and desert. The quickly changing landscape and temperatures make crystal-clear how radical Jesus was to preach kindness and redemption in an area where the land itself is unforgiving. Instead of idyllic preaching, visitors can see the roving evangelism of Jesus and his apostles imbedded with endurance, given the distance and dramatic terrain they slogged between towns. Jesus and his followers had to be fit, sure-footed and street savvy to survive the trips in blaring sun, sandstorms and chilly nights.

My trip to the Holy Land teaches that joy can be found in unexpected circumstances, and that a sacred spot serves to keep alive a memory, even a collective, ancient one. To understand at least some of the fighting is to understand the power of place.

Ferrick-Roman, a Beaver County writer, is a member of Holy Family Parish in New Brighton.



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