A Wall in Palestine. Flickr

Where Everything Began

From the wall that cuts Bethlehem in two, to the classrooms in the Palestinian universities; then Salwa, Tommaso, the Guardian…the life of people who take their faith seriously, with a “vocation inside the vocation.”
Alessandra Stoppa

“Jump down quickly. I’ll drive around the block and pick you up again. You’ve got two minutes.” Being catapulted from a jeep into the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem is not exactly what you expect, but you run, then you bend down to pass through the stone gateway of the great Byzantine sanctuary. The gate was walled up, leaving a small passage to prevent the Turks from profaning it with their horses. The naves are in semi-darkness, and there is a long line of pilgrims. You go in, among the veiled heads and the candle smoke, up to the steps. You get there out of breath and unprepared, but when you go down into the grotto, you are smitten. It is not your thoughts that give meaning to that rock underground, but it is the rock that gives meaning to your thoughts. A realization arises in your heart that no thought could provoke: He who created everything came to be with me. “Jallah, jallah!” Someone pushes you and you have to leave room for others. You are catapulted out again, you get back into the jeep, but that realization is fixed in your head.

You are seated beside Sobhy Makoul, rushing along in his jeep. If you are here to see how the seed of the Christian presence is living and growing where the Nativity happened in history, you can’t find a more efficient guide. Sobhy, a Maronite Christian with an Israeli passport, is the secretary of the Maronite Patriarch of Jerusalem. He takes you, strictly through shortcuts, among the earlocks and the yarmulkes of the Jews and through the sands of the Palestinian Territories.

Our destination is Bethany, a few hundred yards beyond the Mount of Olives, but we have to make a detour of 16 miles (20 km) because of the Wall. We skirt the borders of the desert of Judah, toward the Red Hills. We pass by Ma’ale Adumimm, one of the Jewish settlements east of Jerusalem. We have time to watch the sunset, and then we reach the red and blue lights of the checkpoint. We slow down. A young soldier in camouflage uniform looks at the passports, and another checks the cabin. He lowers his head a little to see who is behind, then he gives us a vague salute, not very convinced, as if it were a polite concession to let us go.

Sujoud’s Ringlets
We reach Bethany after dark. On the broken roads, the dust clouds escort us. There is no lighting, no road names. Here Samar Sahhar lives, with thirty children in her orphanage, on a rocky slope.

Perhaps it’s better this way. If there were addresses, lights, and doorbells, the trucks wouldn’t lose their way and there would be no unexpected provisions. “Even yesterday, some sacks of rice arrived. They weren’t meant for us. I told my girls, ‘Shhhh, it’s Providence.’” Samar laughs and caresses Norma. She is 15, with a look that questions you. She is one of the eldest of the children of Samar, a Palestinian Christian who founded this orphanage, following the example of her parents who converted a stable into a room to house a group of 10 children, which soon became 100, and then 300. She opened this home for girls, called “Lazarus Home.”

We enjoy a cup of tea on the veranda, while the children come, in procession, to kiss Mother Samar goodnight. One by one, the children kiss her, then run away, laughing–all except Sujoud, who grasps hold of her legs because she doesn’t want to go to bed. She is the youngest in the home, only four years old. When she came here, she had been battered by her mother; she had no teeth and clumps of her hair were torn out. You can’t imagine it; today she has shining eyes and black ringlets. Samar takes her in her arms, without interrupting her account of the day, spent in court. “Salwa is a Muslim, the mother of four children who are all here. She killed her husband who forced her into prostitution. She wanted to defend her children, and now she risks the death penalty.” Since the trial began, Salwa found a family in court that she didn’t know she had. Samar, along with other friends, went to testify on her behalf. They go to visit her in jail whenever they can. Lately, they found that she offers company to other women waiting for judgment like herself. It’s a shattered life that is growing again, like Sujoud’s ringlets. You don’t feel the need to ask how it is possible, because you see it before you. It is Samar’s steady caress.

“It’s what is needed here–steady relationships, steady love,” Tommaso Saltini tells us, when we get back to Jerusalem. We are in his office in the heart of the Old City, in front of the Tower of David. He is the head of the Holy Land Association, the non-government organization of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land for international aid. “We need to be here, to be physically present.” He gets up to close the window. It’s two hours to sundown and the harsh voice of the muezzin pierces through the glass, inviting people to prayer. “You see it in yourself: the more the contexts here are varied and complex, the more you need a place, a community.” That’s what the house of the Memores Domini is for him, where he lives with Ettore and Alberto, who work for the Custody and for AVSI. The Christian presence in the house is to face your own life, not to be a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians.

The same Church needs the dedication of the Franciscans, faithful over eight centuries. Their headquarters is spread out around the convent of San Salvatore, just a step away from the Holy Sepulchre. Here, the Custodian of the Holy Land, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, welcomes us with his robust and synthetic realism. “Christians have little influence on public life. There are few of us, and we are very diversified: many Churches, many rites. There is continuous emigration, above all among the middle classes and especially in the Territories.” But then he goes on nonchalantly, “Even if the life of Christians here is fragile, it has an importance out of proportion with its presence!” He bangs the chair with the arms that stick out of his habit. He is not speaking of charitable, educational, health, and social works (“which are important, since our schools are the oldest and the most prestigious”). There is something that comes before all this, “the living witness that passes through personal relationships. The Christians are a presence that does not create problems. It’s a concrete fact, and not of little relevance. They are a pacifying reality.” Here, where centuries of hatred and contradictions have solidified, where public relationships are bogged down and the status quo of the Holy Places seems to have permeated day-to-day life, with the various repartitions that affect the atmosphere, and have become a way of thinking... No discourse will resolve this tension, only something more radical.

We were Wrong
What was and is needed is something like the Pope’s visit last May. At first it was frowned upon. “There were a lot of doubts,” Pizzaballa tells us. With the war in Gaza just ended, it seemed inopportune. Many Christians were the first not to want it, thinking that it would be used to foment more trouble. “We were wrong.” The Papal Nuncio for Israel and Delegate for Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories, Archbishop Antonio Franco, used the same words when we met him earlier. We had gone to see him in his residence below the impressive Mormon University of Mount Scopus. He said, “The Pope’s choice had us worried, but it was just what was needed; for him to come and speak to all of us. The Christian community’s perception was transformed, and it regained hope; many people came to tell me this.” Fr. Pizzaballa confirms it, “It was a very sincere visit, not at all politically correct. We are reading over the Pope’s words and discovering all their power. It was an encouragement in all the difficulties of our life.” What is it that sustains you every day? “The relationship with the people here supports me very much, very much,” he repeats. “When you understand that man needs only to be loved, everything changes. Relationships change at once, it clears out all the poison.” The Christian families have already begun to ask him for help at Christmas, for example, for decorating the quarter and for preparing the moments of celebration. This is another aspect he wants to preserve. “It’s not a routine, it’s a rite. It is participating in an event and waiting for it.” There is the frenzy over the pilgrims arriving, and the message to write. “I am working on it. It’s a challenge because it cannot be taken for granted–I mean for myself. What does it mean to say that Jesus happens again? I have to look in front of me.”

From Hebron to Gaza
We say goodbye to him, and I ask him what his prayer is in the morning, in this land that is never at peace. “The prayer changes every day, but I always ask to be faithful to the vocation I have been entrusted with, to follow it according to God’s will.” When first he took up this task, he felt “crushed by so many emergencies and problems. I wanted to solve them all; I let myself be harassed. In time, I am learning to entrust things. Some of them have just to be left aside. None of them belong to you. They are not yours.” It is the poverty of St. Francis: “You can’t put your whole heart into things because you lose them.” He says you need detachment and that a certain solitude is necessary, in this land where passions absorb everything.

The first thing the young people here tell you about is the eternal relationship between their feet and the land beneath them. “It’s a great honor to live in the Holy Land,” asserts Jacob, who was born in Bethlehem and says he will die here. He wears a gold cross around his neck. All the young Christians here have it. If it’s not a pendant, then it’s a tattoo inside the wrist. He is 21 and is studying Information Science and Economics at the Catholic University of Bethlehem, where the internal courtyards are filled with girls with veils. Some boys wearing the kefia shout the praises of Yasser Arafat in front of a picture of him. Today is the fifth anniversary of his death. Others look on, all together. Before being Muslims or Christians, they are Palestinians.

“You have to be sure of your reasons in order to live here,”
says Lubna, who lives in Hebron, the city with the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She is a Muslim. A veil frames her face, and all her 20 years flame up when she says, “I was born here for a reason: to improve the conditions of my people.” When she was 11, she would help her uncle bring foreigners to Hebron to see how things really were. Since then, “everything I do is in relation to this land.” She is tense as she relates, “I get up in the morning, even if the future is dark, because for me, to wake up is to wake up here.” A friend of hers, Berlanty, from Gaza, was arrested by Israeli soldiers on her way home. She had been studying in Bethlehem since 2005, but now the citizens of the Gaza Strip are forbidden to live on the Left Bank. They sent her back to Gaza and she can’t return; she was to graduate in December. “Bad luck,” says Robert Smith, ironically. He is the Vice-President for Academic Affairs in the university, and he has appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court for her. He is also worried about the other students in Gaza, who might not get permission. “Some situations are worsening.”

Fr. Eugenio Alliata can give many examples of this. We met him in a parlor near the Church of the Flagellation, in the Muslim quarter. He teaches at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. He talks about the wonderful archaeological discoveries of this century, and then goes on to speak of the young Christians from the West Bank who “come here on pilgrimage. They are 16–18 years old and they tell me their greatest discontent: never having been to the sea. It is only 14 miles away, but they are not allowed to go there. What do those families do on Sundays?” His tears begin to fall. You wouldn’t expect it of this energetic friar who entered the convent at the age of nine. He has now been here for 30 years. He talks of his years in Nazareth with Beniamino Bagatti, the most renowned Franciscan archaeologist of last century. “Wherever you dig underground here you find places belonging to the Church. The numbers say that the Christian presence is tiny, but just look here…” The stretch of the via Dolorosa outside the gate is full of pilgrims “all day and every day. It’s a seed that will never disappear.” Like for the Procession of the Palms: they come from the villages, perhaps 200, or maybe only 25 of them, “but then everyone applauds those 25.” Soon, with the feast of Christmas, the Christians “will sing and turn up the volume of their radios and televisions and will open their windows so the music and the songs can be heard.”

In the evening, in the car, we speak of the political situation. “Don’t you feel giddy to think of everything that is going on below the surface, that you don’t grasp?” I asked, thinking out loud. “At one time, I did, but now I have decided just to live the present reality,” answers Fr. Vincent Nagle, as he watches the Jericho road ahead of us. He is from California, and works for the Latin Patriarchate. “Everyone needs Christ.” This is his political judgment this evening. Back in Jerusalem, after turning into an alley of the Old City, we meet Filippo, Giovanni, and Daniele. They are taking the measurements of the archways and of the stone steps, here for their thesis in architecture, a project for extending the Custody. All three are enchanted by the Crusaders who, “in 100 years, built the most beautiful things here.”
You see them pointing their laser and writing down the measurements of the area between the suk and the Holy Sepulchre. “Jesus’ life was made up of real distances, don’t you think?” Filippo asks. A life can be measured, it is made of human steps: a mile from the Cenacle to the Mount of Olives, “a stone’s throw.” Jesus left His disciples at that distance in Gethsemane to kneel down and pray. “It all happened in such a short span. It’s a real story as only life can be.” Like a stone’s throw through the trees. Yet the Holy Places do not answer the question they arouse.

Lizy and the Grotto
“It’s not that faith is born from the stones, but touching them with your hand reinforces it,” Fr. José Miguel Garcia, the Spanish biblical scholar, told us the following day, in front of the Church of Emmaus, in the village of el-Qubeibe, 11 miles east of Jerusalem, the distance indicated by Luke’s Gospel. From the terrace, the whole area of Ramallah shines in the sun. It was here that the two disheartened disciples met Jesus along the way. They did not believe He had risen, nor had they recognized Him on sight. Their hearts burned within them as they walked with Him, and later they would recognize Him in the breaking of bread. He who had created everything came to meet them for the sake of their happiness.

It is that warmth in the heart that keeps Sr. Lizy here every day. She has been taking care of the education of the children of Ortas, a poor village near Bethlehem. She tells you her story like someone in love. She’s Indian, with the face of an actress, and she is very concise as she speaks about Christmas in these parts: “It’s extraordinary, not so much for the Grotto, but for what makes it possible to live. You are loved and so you begin to look at the others for what they are, in the mystery that only God knows.”