A Town Named ‘Good’

Despite challenges, an entirely Christian village in Palestine dares to hope

by Hanne Foighel

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In the late afternoon on Holy Saturday, hundreds of residents from Taybeh, a village in the West Bank, 12 miles north of Jerusalem, gather on the main street. As they do every year, they await the arrival of the Holy Fire, which is brought in a lantern directly from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. An ancient celebration, it involves the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, who enters the structure enshrining the tomb of Christ, mysteriously receives the flame, exits the tomb and shares it with the throngs of faithful carrying tapers outside.

At last, a white sedan appears on the horizon, proceeding slowly across the village limits and into the eager crowd. On the car’s roof sits 10–year–old Philip Khoury. He displays a placard high above his head marked with his own handwriting. Transcribed in Arabic and English is a passage from the Gospel of John: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

The boy’s father, Ibrahim Philip Khoury, rides in the front passenger seat. Dressed in the Taybeh scouts’ uniform, the man holds the lantern with the Holy Fire. Each year, the scouts honor one of its members with the task of bringing the Holy Fire home to the village.

The car moves slowly through the crowd, stopping a short distance ahead of them, where the heads of the village’s three churches stand bearing large tapers. Orthodox Father Daoud Philip Khoury, Melkite Greek Catholic Father Jack Abed and Latin (Roman) Catholic Father Ra’ed Abu Sahliyeh warmly greet the boy and his father, who lights each priest’s taper from the lantern.

Once the three priests have received the Holy Fire, the scout drum and pipe band commences a familiar tune. On cue, the villagers gather behind their pastors and solemnly sing along with the music. The priests then lead the villagers to their respective churches. At midnight, they will all celebrate Easter together, but using their distinctive rites.

This village–wide, ecumenical celebration fazes no one. Within Palestine’s tiny Christian community, a sense of solidarity among Christian faithful of all traditions is the rule, not the exception.

“These are not really different churches; they are a mere symbol of the diversity of the church,” says the former Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Michel Sabbah, who participated in the event. Since retiring in 2008, the patriarch has been living in Taybeh, in the newly built Beit Afram home for the elderly on the village’s southern outskirts.

In recent years, as more and more Christians emigrate from the Holy Land, this amity among the various communities has grown stronger. Fifteen years ago, church leaders throughout the Holy Land agreed to celebrate major holidays, namely Christmas and Easter, together. In areas with mixed faithful, churches would celebrate Christmas on 25 December, according to the Latin calendar, and Easter according to the varying dates of the Orthodox Julian calendar.

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Tags: Palestine Christianity Cultural Identity Emigration Melkite Greek Catholic Church