June 19, 2015

Jerusalem Notebook: Finding Hope Amidst the Flames

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by Useful Group

Christians in Israel awakened on June 18 to distressing news. Overnight, angry vandals had attacked one of the loveliest settings in Israel, on the shore of the tranquil Sea of Galilee. In an act of hate-fueled destruction, they set the humble and historic Tabgha church aflame. The Times of Israel reported,

A fire broke out at the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee, early Thursday in what police suspect was an arson attack.

Firefighting crews successfully doused the blaze and two people who were in the building suffered minor smoke inhalation.

In an entrance corridor of the building … Hebrew graffiti was found, reading, “The false gods will be eliminated” – a quote from the Aleinu prayer.

The Tabgha church is beloved by Christians all around the world, remembered for its 5th century mosaic portraying a basket of bread and two fishes. Christians believe that Jesus performed the miracle in which he fed 5,000 of his followers at this very site, located alongside the rippling Galilee shoreline. Unwilling to send them away hungry after they had listened to his teaching for many hours, Jesus broke and divided a small portion of food – five loaves and two fishes – into enough sustenance to feed a multitude and more [Matthew 14:13-21].


Today, the Roman Catholic Benedictine Order oversees the church and its adjoining grounds. According to their early reports, the church sanctuary itself was not significantly harmed. The roof, some storage areas and a few meeting places were the most badly damaged.

But deeper injury was inflicted on the tenuous alliance between Israel’s Jews and Christians. The bold red graffiti marking the incident indicated that the attack was the work of “price-tag” vandals; this term generally describes vandalism carried out against non-Jews in response to Arab attacks, government decisions or disapproval of Christian activity.

Capt. (res.) Shadi Halul is a tireless champion of positive Jewish-Christian relations. He founded the Christian IDF Officers Forum, serves as a reserve paratrooper and was interviewed by Army Radio about the attacks.

If in this case Jewish zealots are fingered, then, first of all, they clearly don’t represent all the Jews. They’re criminals who should be in prison and not walking around freely.

If they think this is how they can help themselves and strengthen their own beliefs then I just want to say it only damages their beliefs and damages their justice, and the justification for their being here in this land.

Just three days before the ugly Tabgha incident took place, two friends and I made our way north from Jerusalem to interview Halul in his Gush Halav home. He works tirelessly there on behalf of his people, his faith and the very issues highlighted in the arson attack: trust and unity between Christians and Jews in Israel.

Like Tabgha, Gush Halav is a tranquil and picturesque spot, set beneath brilliantly blue skies and among rolling hills in Northern Galilee. It is within sight of the Lebanon border and is one of many local villages with majority Christian populations and proud histories.

Halul belongs to the Maronite community, which is named after a 4th century monk, St. Maron. In May 2014, Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai – the Maronite patriarch – arrived during Pope Francis’ visit to Israel. His presence served as a reminder of the local Christians’ heritage.

Maronites are a Christian community that traces its roots to southern Lebanon. No more than 10,000 Maronites live in Israel, a tiny fraction of an already small Christian community.

A local Maronite bishop introduced Cardinal Rai to a crowd of several hundred, but he needed no introduction. He is, after all, the religious equivalent of a rock star.

The cardinal spoke at the entrance of an old stone church, one of the only remaining buildings from the Maronite village of Kfar Bar’am in northern Israel. During its 1948 war for independence, Israel asked residents to leave for two weeks – and never let them come back. Former residents and their descendants have been trying to return ever since. Cardinal Rai said he would ask the Vatican to encourage Israel to allow Kfar Bar’am to be rebuilt.

When he began his activism, Halul – who is himself eager to see Kfar Bar’am rebuilt – initially focused his efforts on encouraging young Christian Israelis to enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces.

It has become increasingly clear that Christians living in Israel experience safety and security to a degree that is incomparable in any of the surrounding countries. Violence against Christian minorities in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and other Muslim lands is rampant and deadly.

Halul and his colleagues believe that Israeli Christians can express their gratitude and loyalty to Israel by defending their homeland – just as the Druze and Bedouin participate in the Israeli military.

Halul has also successfully lobbied for the recognition of a separate identity for non-Arab Christians in Israel, who are part of a faith community that pre-dates Islam. In October 2014, he and his wife made history by changing their 2-year-old son’s registry in the Interior Ministry from Arab to “Christian Aramean.”

Both Maronite and Assyrian churches are categorized as Aramean and recite ancient liturgies in the Aramaic language – the lingua franca in the region during the 1st century, and therefore the language of Jesus.

Islam was introduced to the region in the 7th century, and although many Aramean Christians did not convert, most of them now speak Arabic.

Halul is well aware of currents of mistrust between Jews and Christians in Israel, in large part due to discomfort with each other’s language and culture, historical grudges and religious stigmas. He knows that the process of building a solid, lasting relationship between the two groups is not easy. However, as he showed me some of his research, I could see that he clearly has reason for his hope.

Out of a file bulging with old documents he brought forth an astonishing fragment of history, an exchange that took place between Jewish leaders and Maronite Christians in the 1930s and 1940s. Their rapprochement unfolded in the years before the State of Israel was founded.

He handed me a copy of a typewritten document from 1942, published by the Jewish Agency’s Zionist Archives, researched by Dr. Edmund Meir. This report contains a remarkable statement by the Maronite Patriarch, Anthony II Peter Arida, made in 1937:

The Jews are not only our ancestors, but also our brethren. We are of the same origin. We speak almost the same language. Our fathers are your fathers. We are proud to be sons of the same race. We owe everything to Judaism. Our doctrines are derived from your law. We sincerely desire that productive and enduring relations be established between us and the Jews in general, and the Zionists in particular. We want to help one another and we wish wholeheartedly that God may save the Jews from the persecutions which they are suffering in an unjust and inhuman way, both in Germany and in Palestine.

In the same report, another church leader – Archbishop Ignace Mobarat, Maronite archbishop of Beirut – is also quoted. He first spoke of the horrors imposed on the Jews by Adolph Hitler, who was also said to be persecuting the Catholic Church. He then – on behalf of Patriarch Arida – expressed hope that the expelled, fleeing and often rejected Jewish émigrés could settle in Lebanon:

We have tried to influence the authorities to permit the Jews to enter the Lebanon. The presence of the Jews in Palestine has made the Holy Land an object of envy in the whole world. Whereas the whole world moans in an economic crisis, there is no crisis in Palestine. People with petty minds feel jealous about that and respond with ingratitude, atrocities, expulsion. Therefore we, His Beatitude and myself, want to say to you: Be welcome, Jews. If I have said once that His Beatitude is the patriarch of the Jews, I now declare myself as the archbishop of the Jews.

Those stunning statement were made in 1937. Five years later – after the Third Reich’s full-blown assault on Jews was becoming evident to the world – Meir’s report for the Jewish Agency continued with his comments on the previous statements by the Lebanese Patriarch and Archbishop:

The Muslims of Syria and the Lebanon were not satisfied with these utterances. There are reports about an incident between the Patriarch and the Mufti of Beirut.

Since then, nothing seems to have transpired about relations between Jews and Maronites. There are some analogies in the national life of the two peoples which perhaps have attracted the attention of Maronite leaders. In this case, it may be possible that there is something more at the bottom of the friendly words which we have heard, and that in the future these two minorities will still have to say and to give something one to the other.

Standing on a windblown hillside near Shadi Halul’s home, looking across orchards and fields along the Lebanon border, I reflected on how true those words remain today – more than half a century later. Jews and Christian do, indeed “still have to say and to give something one to the other.”

As the radical Islamist saying goes, “First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people.” In the Muslim lands that cruelly expelled the Jews in the 20th century – often violently – today’s Christians are now suffering similar abuses. Together, as people devoted to the Word of God, Jews and Christians may not agree on all things, but surely we can stand together on our bloodstained common ground.

Like the loaves and fishes at the Galilee shore, perhaps small endeavors focused on strengthening understanding, trust and cooperation between Jews and Christians – heartfelt labors carried out by Capt. Halul and many others – will be divinely blessed, generously enlarged and miraculously multiplied.

Meanwhile, in our efforts, we can find inspiration in the memory of St. Maron. Maronite Christians eulogize him gratefully: “As you stood firm as a cedar, my shakiness is settled; as you outstretched your arms like great branches, I unwind my tension; as you felt the fresh breeze against you, I open my heart to the winds of God’s love.”