After the Israeli elections, the only halfway house for Arabs in Israel faces an uncertain future

This article was published in America magazine.

HAIFA – The two are unlikely neighbors. On one side of the cobblestone courtyard there is a modest halfway house for prisoners convicted of serious criminal offenses like murder, arms dealing and drug trafficking. On the other side, built with the same pale yellow stone, is the chandelier-adorned Church of Our Lady, a place of worship for Melkite Catholics.

The halfway house, known as the House of Grace, is the only such facility in Israel designated for Arab offenders. It may also be the only rehabilitation program in Israel that offers Divine Liturgy.

Salah Akoul, 53, said that without House of Grace, he would be back in prison. After spending 26 years in and out of prison for drug- and arms-trafficking offenses, Akoul has now completed his residency and is living on his own. He said that the experience changed his “primitive” way of thinking and taught him how to be part of a family. “It’s important for me to let people know that this place does really help,” he said.

Almost 1,000 prisoners were released early from prisons in Israel in December due to overcrowding, including those convicted of sex offences and domestic abuse. So in some ways rehabilitation for former inmates is needed now more than ever.

The recent elections in Israel will directly impact House of Grace, since as a service provider for the government, the new government can now alter or decline to renew House of Grace’s annual contract, valid until the end of the year, or even decide to grant additional funding.

Under Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was re-elected as Prime Minister on April 9, House of Grace has been fighting for more funding. The government only covers about a third of its operating costs, said Elias Sussan, the director of the halfway house services at House of Grace.

“We’ve had a lot of disagreement with the government about financing. It’s not reasonable to raise funds from Europe or from the [United] States—or from wherever—for prisoners that the government should be taking care of,” said Sussan.

“For us rehabilitation for ex-convicts is the goal; it is not a business,” said Sussan,

But House of Grace is accustomed to facing uncertainty.

After more than three decades of work, House of Grace’s prisoner rehabilitation program almost closed in 2015 when the government canceled its contract. “House of Grace is facing new struggles as we strive to continue our striving to serve the ‘least of these,’” Jamal Shehade, director of House of Grace, said at the time. After widespread outrage from community members and civic leaders, including the head of Israel’s Anti-Drug Authority’s program for Arabs, the contract was renewed.

House of Grace has been providing rehabilitative services for incarcerated Palestinian citizens of Israel since it was founded by Shehade’s parents, Kamil and Agnes, in the 1980s. Inspired by Jesus’ call in Matthew 25 to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner, they transformed the premises of a then-abandoned church into House of Grace. Shehade grew up on the property and did not realize until much later that his “uncles” were “ex-convicts, recovering addicts and runaways.”

The program can house 15 men at a time. There are currently over 3,500 Arab citizens of Israel being held in Israel Prison Service facilities, according to government statistics. Arabs make up only about 20 percent of Israel’s population but approximately 40 percent of its prison population. (These statistics do not take into account about 5,000 prisoners in Israeli prison facilities from Gaza and the West Bank, according to B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.)

“15 beds are not really lot for that,” said Shehade.

Since 2011, the Israeli government has contracted with House of Grace to rehabilitate Arab prisoners. Following an interview process with the facility, residents live at House of Grace for nine months while they receive group therapy and one-on-one counseling and are accompanied by staff 24/7. House of Grace staff focus on community-building, helping residents find jobs, pay their bills and learn how to live together.

Once their nine-month stay is complete, they are required to visit House of Grace periodically over the following year, and former residents must submit to further counseling and drug-use checks. Additional programs at House of Grace include support for the families of the incarcerated and an after-school program for children in the community. These programs aim to curb recidivism by former inmates who are under pressure to provide for their families once they leave prison and to prevent children from getting involved in criminal activity as they grow up.

In the past, House of Grace served both Israeli and Arab prisoners and offered support as well as to the local homeless population and to women. In 2011, the Israeli government stipulated that House of Grace’s residential rehabilitation program work exclusively with Arab offenders.

Shehade says that although House of Grace has a Christian mission and is based on church property, it is not an evangelical enterprise. Its residents, like Akoul, are mostly Muslim, and don’t use the church located on the facilities of House of Grace.

Shehade is a Melkite Catholic and Palestinian living in Israel. Melkites are the largest group of Christians in Israel, but Christians are still a very small minority, making up about two percent of the overall population, according to a 2018 report from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. There is an even smaller percentage of Christians in Palestinian territories—the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics puts Christians at 1 percent.

Although Shehade has Israeli citizenship, according to Israel’s Nation-State law, passed in 2018, Israel is the “historic homeland of the Jewish people” and “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” These new stipulations suggest to many Palestinian citizens of Israel, whether they are Muslim or Christian, that their status is considered secondary.

This puts Shehade and other Palestinian Christians living in Israel in a unique, often difficult position. “For Jews, we are Arabs; for Muslims, we are Christians; for the Arab world, we are traitors,” he said.

But Shehade says that House of Grace shows that Palestinian Christians in Israel have a “special role” because of their intersecting identities and in showing paths toward peace on a local level.

“As a Christian I have a message in this world. And that message is to be a good Christian as Jesus told us, and to serve the other—it doesn’t matter for what reason or who he is, even if he is my worst enemy and he needs support, I will try and help him,” said Shehade.

“This message is very needed in the Middle East where you have conflicts between every ethnic or religious group that you have here.”

Article reprinted courtesy of americamagazine.org


A church of many languages thrives in Brooklyn

The sounds of Arabic and Syriac could be heard at Our Lady of Lebanon, the Maronite Cathedral in Brooklyn Heights on Sunday, Feb. 10, as the church celebrated the annual feast of St. Maron.

 

At the 11:30 a.m. Mass, the cathedral was brimming with worshipers, some who joined the Mass at different intervals after it had begun. They padded across the church’s red carpets, with grand chandeliers suspended from the arched blue ceiling overhead. Mother Mary, painted above the altar, is crested by the mountains of Lebanon.

 

Unlike Roman Catholic churches, which largely say Mass in English in the United States (some parishes offer other languages, like Spanish, according to their parish needs), Maronite churches such as Our Lady of Lebanon have a Mass (or “Qurbono”) that combines English, Arabic and Syriac. The readings, for example, are recited first in English and then in Arabic.

 

The Rev. Bishop Gregory Mansour’s Sunday homily was one of the only parts of the Mass that was solely in English. On Sunday he spoke on the gospel reading, John 12:23-30. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” Mansour quoted. The passage is often used by Christians to explain why Jesus died. Mansour used this scripture to address the feast day the cathedral was celebrating. “This could very easily apply to St. Maron,” Mansour said, given how the saint’s influence and following grew following his death.

 

In his homily, Mansour described how the legacy of St. Maron lives on. The saint, he said, was an “open air hermit” who travelled into the mountains to be closer to God, and went on to build a church there in the elements. But he said he wanted to highlight the lessons that can still be learned from the saint. He said there was something special about the “particular feeling” you “might be doing God’s work”—a feeling he suspected St. Maron had when he was building his community.

 

Mansour also drew attention to unique history of the Maronite Church. “We are the only church named after a person,” he said of the various Catholic churches, which also include the Roman, Chaldean and Melkite churches. He noted that the Maronite Church is unique because it has no Orthodox or protestant counterpart—Maronites say it has remained united since its founding, and has always been in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. (Some scholars are in disagreement on this latter point.)

 

Mansour said the Maronite church never had the “luxury” of the corruption of the Middle Ages, obliquely referring to the period in which European Catholic leaders sold indulgences, forgiving sins for money. Meanwhile in Lebanon, Maronites were not in positions of power, and instead faced waves of persecution. St. Maron himself was an ascetic who chose a life of poverty. “This great church,” he said, “grew up in simplicity.”

 

This isn’t to say the Maronite Church is in conflict with the Vatican or with Roman Catholics—the Maronite Church is considered  “in full communion” with Roman Catholic Church.

 

But the Maronite Church is an Eastern Catholic church with its own customs. For example, Communion is taken by mouth only and is dipped in the wine that Catholics say has been transformed into the Blood of Christ. While in many Roman Catholic parishes, the Sign of Peace consists of greetings, handshakes and hugs shared by congregants at will, in the Qurbono the Sign of Peace is offered at each pew by an altar server, who clasps his hands over those of the person closest to him. That person brings their hands to their mouths and turns to cover the hands of their neighbors with their own, and the chain of peace offerings continue down the pew.

 

The Maronite church also has its own local jurisdiction. Our Lady of Lebanon cathedral, for example, does not fall under the diocese of the Rev. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, but rather under the eparchy (or province) of St. Maron. Bishop Mansour presides over this area, which covers about 45 Maronite parishes in a vast area that includes the states of New York, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Maine. Both DiMarzio and Mansour serve on the United States Council of Catholic Bishops which reports to the Vatican.

 

In addition to highlighting the distinctive legacy of the church, Mansour seemed to temper outsize devotion to St. Maron. “Some people say St. Maron founded the Maronite church, but that’s not true,” he said. “Jesus is our founder, St. Maron was the follower.”