Palestinian Christians hope the road to American evangelicals runs through Bethlehem

BETHLEHEM—If Jesus were to suddenly appear at one of the Israeli checkpoints that separates this Palestinian area from Israel, what would He think? That is a question that bedeviled the Reverend Munther Isaac, a Palestinian Christian who is the academic dean at Bethlehem Bible College.

“Would Christ discriminate between people based on their ethnicity?” Isaac asked. “Would Christ promote fear of the other?”

These questions were among those that inspired Isaac, 39, to set up a conference called Christ at the Checkpoint, an event hosted by Bethlehem Bible College every two years. The aim of the conference is to teach evangelicals from around the world about the lives of Palestinian Christians living under Israeli occupation. Hundreds have gathered at each of the four conferences that have taken place since 2010. The fifth one is happening this month between May 28th and June 1st, with an expected attendance of 450.

Isaac, who is the conference director, said that while Christ is the symbol of the Christian faith, the checkpoint is a symbol of the reality for Palestinians. Together they form the conference title. Checkpoints are barriers set up in the West Bank by the Israeli Defense Forces to prevent terror attacks that harm civilians. But Palestinians who pass through checkpoints—which is often necessary for daily commute to work—must get their identities checked by Israeli authorities and are subject to lengthy questioning.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Jesus Christ at the Center.” The theme is a challenge to Christian theologies that place Israel at the center. “We believe as evangelical Christians in Palestine that Scripture points us to Christ, not to Israel,” Isaac explained.

Indeed, a big target group for Christ at the Checkpoint is evangelical Christians in the United States. Sami Awad, a speaker at this year’s conference and the director of a Palestinian peacemaking nonprofit, Holy Land Trust, said that Christian Zionism—support for Jews to return to the Holy Land based on the promises made to Israel in the Bible—is a strong movement in the States.

“Most evangelical and Pentecostal Christians have support for Israel no matter what happens,” said Awad, 47, who travels to the U.S. four or five times a year to meet with churches. “They say if politicians don’t support Israel, the country will be cursed.”

In a 2016 study by Pew Research Center, 79 percent of white evangelical Protestants said they sympathize more with Israel than with Palestinians, while 5 percent said they sympathize more with Palestinians. The report says that opinion is less one-sided in other denominations. Nevertheless, in groups like mainline Protestants and white Catholics, only 14 percent said they side more with Palestinians. Overall, most Christians overwhelmingly favor Israel.

“Many evangelical Christians will come and say, 'God gave this land to the Jewish people and it’s theirs,'” Isaac said, “And we say, 'What does that mean on the ground? Should we pack, should we accept to live as second-class citizens all under occupation just because of that promise?'

“It’s these kinds of questions that we want to challenge evangelicals to consider,” he said.

Besides challenging the beliefs of evangelicals, the conference will highlight the Palestinian perspective—a perspective that is often not heard in Christian circles.

“I once met a woman who for 50 years, prayed for the peace of Jerusalem—every day, that’s what she told me. And she said she has never mentioned Palestinians, she didn’t know we exist,” Isaac described, “We’re living in an age when you would think, with social media, people would know. But still they don’t know.”

Within the Holy Land, Palestinians who are Christian are even more invisible. According to The World Factbook published by the Central Intelligence Agency, Christians make up between 1 to 2.5 percent of the population in the West Bank, and less than one percent of the population in Gaza. The Christian population in the two regions used to be 15 percent in 1950, and it continues to dwindle.

“Palestinian Christian voices get almost zero presence within mainstream media because they do not fit neatly into either a Conservative or a Liberal American political narrative,” said James-Michael Smith, the founder of a Christian nonprofit in Charlotte, North Carolina. Smith, 39, traveled to Bethlehem for Christ at the Checkpoint four years ago and will participate in this year’s conference.

David Azar, 29, is a Palestinian Christian who moved from Gaza to the West Bank. He studied Theology at Bethlehem Bible College, and went to the conference in 2012, 2014, and 2016. Azar told me about participants he met at past conferences. “Some people, they didn’t know that there are Christians in Palestine,” he said, “They were thinking that Palestine is an Islamic country. But through Christ at the Checkpoint and a conference like that, they will see the living stories of Palestinian Christians.”

Mariam Geraisy, a recent graduate of Bethlehem Bible College, has similar thoughts. “The world does not care about the feeling of Palestinian Christians,” said Geraisy, 23, “For me, this conference is a good way to make our voice heard as Christians for the whole world.”

She attended the conference in 2016 as a Theology student. Geraisy grew up in Beit Sahour, a town east of Bethlehem, and said that living in the West Bank presented many challenges.

“This is represented by the political and religious situation in Palestine,” Geraisy explained, “Some examples of this are the wars between the two peoples, the existing violence, the physical humiliation and the psychological humiliation of anyone trying to visit the Holy Places in Jerusalem or any other area.”

Palestinians who travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem have to apply for a permit. A Palestinian Christian woman, who asked to be anonymous, said the hardest part is the fear that hits her while she’s crossing the checkpoint. “If I’m in the line, if I see a soldier, I’m scared and I walk like a robot, not like a normal person,” she explained, “You can’t put your hands in pockets.”

Having encounters with Israeli soldiers is one of the many realities of life in the West Bank. Isaac, who is also the pastor of a Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, said that after learning about these realities, evangelical Christians still often do not give their support.

“We’re living in a time when it’s still difficult and costly to many evangelical Christians to publicly support Palestinians or to publicly say something sympathetic to Palestinians,” Isaac explained, “It’s almost like a taboo to support Palestinians.”

Nevertheless, Isaac said he hopes that evangelicals from the West will attend the conference and hear from their Christian brothers and sisters in Bethlehem.

“We’ve met, sometimes, pastors who say they’ve come to the Holy Land many times with groups but never came to this side here,” Isaac said of Christians who make their first visit to the Palestinian territories for Christ at the Checkpoint.

“The biggest effect is, they leave saying: ‘We didn’t know.’”

As published in The Media Project.


A Muslim man's sacred job renting crosses in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — Tall, built and gangly, Mazen Kenan, a 46-year-old Palestinian, towers above everyone in just about any setting. But his height is particularly commanding in the tightly packed streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, where he maneuvers easily despite the five foot-long, 50-pound wooden cross he bears on his shoulder. His dexterity is not surprising because he’s been shuttling crosses through the city for nearly two decades.

Every day, Kenan walks the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross, a route sacred for Christians around the world. With a smirk on his face and a cigarette in his free hand, he smoothly moves through the crowds of tourists and shop owners. But hauling the cross around Jerusalem in the path that Jesus walked is not a sign of devotion for him. The procession and the rental business are merely transactional trades for Kenan, whose family is Muslim. But despite his religious background, he’s the go-to guy pilgrims visiting Jerusalem rent their crosses from.

Mazen Kenan carrying a cross through Jerusalem. (Godland News / Vildana Hajric & Isobel van Hagen)

Christian pilgrims from around the world visit the Old City, a place rife with key historical Christian monuments and Biblical references. Israel reported a record number of visitors last year, with nearly 80 percent of the more than 3.6 million visitors stopping in Jerusalem. More than half of Israel’s tourists were Christian and 25 percent of those were visiting as pilgrims.

The Stations of the Cross, a circuitous path along the Via Dolorosa with 14 stops in total, is believed by many to be the route that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. Tour groups of pilgrims large and small move from station to station, carrying with them hymn books, pamphlets with descriptions of each station, and, most importantly, a large cross.

On a recent Friday in March, one of the busiest times to walk the procession, Kenan followed a group as they started their tour. The group was made up of pilgrims from Los Angeles, New York or the Philippines, and was led by a man who identified himself as Pastor Joel from California. Kenan snapped pictures at every station, and when the priest took some time to reflect on the importance of the group’s trip, Kenan took a cigarette break instead.

The weeks before Easter are a particularly busy time for business, said Kenan, thanks to a combination of warm weather and the holiday season.

(Godland News / Vildana Hajric and Isobel van Hagen)

“It’s always been my dream to come here,” said Dulce Guzman, 50, who had traveled from Fresno, Ca. to make her way through the walk. “I wanted to experience how Jesus lived. We’re exploring his life and time. It’s a remarkable experience for us,” she added.

Yvonne Amantea, a pilgrim from Los Angeles, was in Jerusalem for the first time. She walked through the streets murmuring, “Our Father, hail Mary, glory be,” as she held part of the giant wooden cross over her head.   Between each stop on the route, at least six people walk with the cross, she explained, so everyone gets a chance to hold it.

Bob Vega, 72, a retired accountant from Fresno, had started his trip in Bethlehem, then traveled to Nazareth and now was in Jerusalem to complete not only the Stations of the Cross, but the entire path of the life of Jesus. This was his 10th time traveling to Jerusalem, and his favorite spot along the procession is the 11th station, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified. “While it’s important symbolically when I carry the cross on this walk,” he said, “the one Jesus carried was definitely much heavier.”

As Kenan followed the group making its way toward the ninth stop on the Via Dolorosa–called “Jesus falls a third time”–the midday sun beat down, and it was hard to hear Joel preaching over the Muslim call to prayer.

Kenan makes all of the crosses himself, mostly out of olive wood. He has around 50 and keeps the majority of them at his home in Jerusalem. Every day, however, he brings a few to the first station of the Way of the Cross and rents them out depending on daily demand. Though demand fluctuates throughout the year, the past couple of weeks have been particularly busy for him due to the Easter holiday. But when asked how many crosses he had rented out that day, he held up a single finger. “One.”

The business has been in the Kenan family for nearly seven decades. His father, who passed away about three months ago, started it back in 1951, according to Kenan. He took it over in 1999, helping to transform it into what it is today. Pilgrims can rent the cross for $50. To supplement his cross rental income, he takes pictures of tour groups and charges them about $3 per photo. If the group decides to use him as their photographer, the cross comes free.

Some, however, choose to avoid this rental cost and bring their own cross, hauling it in in pieces and assembling it right before the start of their tours. Shafik Elias, a Syrian Christian who came with a larger group, is one of those people. He brought his own handmade cross–carved of pale orange wood–in two pieces along with a screwdriver to assemble it. He even saved scraps of newspaper to help cover up the edges for protection during travel.

Pilgrims return their crosses in a courtyard located just behind the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The courtyard, raised above the city, is a quiet and secluded world of its own. Here, another group – this one of Greek Catholic pilgrims from Nazareth – took a photo with the cross they had rented from Kenan. As they finished their tour, the leader of the pilgrimage said Kenan told him to just leave the cross in the courtyard. He would grab it later.

The pilgrims left the lone cross leaning against the ancient stone wall of the courtyard.

As published in The Media Project


As Christian site crumbles, conflict over ownership delays repairs

JERUSALEM — “There is a time,” the Bible tells us, “to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.” For the sacred shrines of the Holy Land, however, the act of moving even a single stone can provoke the greatest of controversies.

Stones have apparently complicated restoration work at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a complex of shrines and altars that houses two of the holiest sites in Christianity – the place where Jesus died on the cross, and the place where he was resurrected.

Over the last two millennia, six Christian denominations have claimed custodial ownership of these places. They have devised among themselves an elaborate choreography of how and when each church can use each space. 

On September 22nd, 2017, the Church of the Archangel Michael, part of the Holy Sepulchre complex, was ordered closed after a small stone fell from its the ceiling.

Instead of repairing it, the two churches that claim ownership over the church prevented one another from making necessary repairs. One of them is the Coptic Orthodox Church, which has long claimed ownership of the Church of the Archangel Michael, and the surrounding courtyard atop the complex, called Deir El-Sultan. The other church that claims ownership is the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

When the stone fell, the Copts and the Ethiopians could not decide who was to take responsibility for reinforcing the ceiling of the Church of the Archangel Michael. The physical damage caused by the falling stone, however, paled in comparison to the fragile peace that was shattered between the two churches as age-old disputes bubbled to the surface.

It was not a matter of money. “Everyone can afford to repair it,” explained the Rev. Marcos Alorshalmey, the secretary of the Coptic order. “It’s only a small piece of the roof, but the Ethiopians don’t recognize us as the owners.”

St. Antony’s – Father Markos Alorshalemy, Secretary (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

He said that the Copts and Ethiopians generally cooperate. “At the end of the day, we are all one Christian community. But if you have a right, you cannot just leave it – you have to defend it.”

But the Ethiopians have a different story. Bar Markos is one of 21 monks living in cramped cells in Deir El-Sultan.

He claims that the Ethiopian presence goes back 2,000 or more years. “There were monks at the time of Jesus Christ here,” said Markos, shaking an English-language pamphlet in his right hand.

“And before that, the Queen of Sheba secured this land for the Ethiopians from King Solomon.”

After this confident declaration, he invited tourists to come and see their one remaining church, where a painting of the Abyssinians bringing gifts to the Davidic king hangs from the wall.

Deir El-Sultan – Bar Markos, left, is one of around 21 monks living on the holy site. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

When Alorshalemy heard of this claim, he was baffled.

“But King Solomon was not Christian!” cried Alorshalemy.

“And more than that, during the time of King Solomon, there was no one here. There was no monastery. No church. No nothing! So, how come King Solomon gave them this area?” he questioned, repeatedly.

Unfortunately for the Ethiopians, the archaeological and historical record falls silent on these claims, though the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been a destination of Christian pilgrimage since at least 325 A.D., when St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, is said to have rediscovered the holy site.

Mutual recognition between the two Oriental churches of an Ethiopian presence on Deir El-Sultan begins in the 17th Century.

Both sides are in agreement that, in 1654, the Armenians and Greeks evicted the Ethiopians from their altars inside the main church when they could not afford to pay taxes on their property.

At that time, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, as an apostolic see, ministered to the Copts and Ethiopians. It was not until 1959, when the Coptic Pope Cyril VI granted the Ethiopians their own patriarch, that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church became fully independent.

“Before, they had no place to go,” said Alorshemy. “So we, as their mother church, allowed them to stay as guests until they found somewhere else.

“Back then, the Copts were few in number, so the Ethiopians ended up staying there for many years.”

In fact, the Ethiopians go a step farther than this in their official history, which is summarized in a pamphlet that is readily available from their church offices. They claim that it was actually the Copts – and a man by the name of Ibrahim Giuhari, specifically – who stole property from the Ethiopians back in 1774. No evidence was produced to corroborate this event.

The Copts, however, say that they have evidence that they were there even earlier. For example, the iconostasis and other engravings bear the hallmarks of Coptic design. Official documents date these artifacts to the early 12th century.

Circa late-1800s – Coptic monks praying in the two disputed churches of Deir El-Sultan (Courtesy of St. Antony’s Coptic Monastery)

Though none of the monks speak fluent English, Hebrew or even Arabic, the pamphlet goes to pains to describe the poverty of the Ethiopian community, who, through the centuries have lost the majority of their properties in the Holy Land. Their last stand, they seem to be saying, is Deir El-Sultan. What emerges from this short historical pamphlet is a people clinging on dearly to what little they have.

Shortly after the dispute over the fallen stone, the Coptic Metropolitan Bishop of Jerusalem and the Near East, Anba Antonios, issued a press statement saying that the Copts should be put in charge of the renovation based on legal precedents. He recounted the number of times the Ethiopians had wrongfully tried to seize their property and had failed.

“We call upon all parties concerned to support the Coptic Church in preserving its property in the Holy Land,” said the bishop.

Twice, he wrote, the Ethiopians had stolen the keys to Deir El-Sultan’s main buildings and gates – once in 1850, and again, in 1862. In both cases, the Ottomans ruled in favor of the Copts by decree.

The Dome of the Church of St. Helen – an Ethiopic monk prays decades of the rosary. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

Alorshalemy speculates that these incidents instilled within the Ethiopians the feeling that they were under threat of expulsion. On two separate occasions since the 19th century, the Ethiopians have secretly attempted to commission renovations and painting, in order to exercise some proprietary right over the premises. In 1959, a Jordanian court even decided to hand over the keys to the Ethiopians, but this was short-lived, as the Copts successfully petitioned King Hussein a year later.

After the Six-Day War of 1967, in which Israel defeated Egypt, the Israeli government turned Deir El-Sultan over to the Ethiopians. Again, the Copts appealed and won in the Israeli Supreme Court, but the decision was not acted upon.

“The Israeli government has refused to implement the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court from 1971 to the present day,” explained the bishop in dismay.

To preserve their rights, the Copts have devised a series of symbolic acts and gestures, which, they believe, proves their undisputed ownership.

“We have one cell at Deir El-Sultan, and that’s where the head of the monks in that monastery should stay,” said Father Alorshalemy.

“That room is ours, so one of our monks goes and sleeps there every day,” he added. “But because there is no water, no electricity, no sewage, we take it in turns to stay there.”

The 21-strong Ethiopian community feels much aggrieved by their lot, too, but they blame it largely on the Copts.

They complain that for 80 years, until 1970, the two Ethiopian shrines were locked for Easter, and they had to celebrate outside in the open air. Similarly, at times, the purported shutdown prevented the Ethiopians “from burying the corpses of dead priests and nuns,” reads the pamphlet. These claims have not been independently verified.

“Politics is a dirty game,” lamented Bar Markos, bowing his head.

“Even your cat or your dog cannot live in this place. In this society, in this century – there is no humanity.”

Deir El-Sultan– Ethiopian monks have lived here in ‘temporary residence’ since 1654, when they were evicted from the main church. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

These accusations have deeply upset the Copts, though despite living several feet apart, the two orders rarely meet, or converse, on account of the language barrier. This makes a resolution near impossible. At present, there is only one clerical figure who speaks Amharic and Arabic, and he resides with the Copts. His name is the Rev. Gabriel Selassie. He is at least 93-years-old and was ostracized from the Ethiopian community 18 years ago for supporting the Coptic position.

In 2008, the late Dominican priest, the Rev. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, published a book entitled "The Holy Land." He alleged that the Copts were “torturing” the Ethiopians, forcing them to live in poverty. Alorshalemy said that he was shocked at the charges, which, in his view, made the Copts out to be “bad people.” He wrote to Oxford University Press, requesting a correction in the next edition.

The Copts see it differently. In light of their charity work and sustained commitment to allowing the Ethiopians to stay on Deir El-Sultan, the monks of St. Anthony’s take great offense to such judgments on their character.

“It’s simply not true – not true at all,” sighed Father Alorshalemy.

Almost a month to the day after the stone fell, the Dangerous Buildings Department of the Jerusalem Municipality sent government-appointed engineers to admit equipment to the site to begin repairs. As a compromise, the Israeli government had offered to fix the roof.

But the Copts had flatly refused unless certain conditions were met. Among these, the Copts insisted that they – and not the Ethiopians or the Israeli government – pay for the restoration. It was clearly a way of asserting ownership.

No reply came.

“As we did not receive any reply, we sent several other letters to confirm our readiness,” recalled Bishop Antonios.

“We sent the engineering report, the blueprints and the contract agreement to the engineering office assigned with the renovations,” he added. “But we have yet to receive any written response.”

And neither would they. The government proposal to take control of the renovation was not the one the Copts had hoped for. When they heard the news, the Archbishop hurried to assemble all the Coptic monks, deacons and priests to peacefully protest the decision. They stood at the gate and waited until engineers left without delivering the equipment.

“The Egyptian Embassy intervened in this matter,” said the Coptic bishop, “and this led to the delay of the work until coordination in writing is made with us.” The entry of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry into these negotiations has undoubtedly raised the stakes, for the confrontation has now escalated beyond a petty church dispute.

But it remains to be seen what will happen next, and more importantly, how the Ethiopians will react. Alorshalemy is optimistic that a solution will be reached soon, though the Ethiopians will not compromise so easily.

Deir El-Sultan – An Ethiopian nun reads a newspaper. (Godland News / Patrick Mulholland)

Finding unity at the divided Church of the Holy Sepulchre

JERUSALEM — There’s a ladder in the Old City of Jerusalem. It perches on a stone ledge beneath the second-floor window at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected. According to local lore, the ladder has been there since at least 1852 and it is not to be moved.

The “immovable ladder,” as it's known, symbolizes the complications that arise when six different Christian denominations occupy one of the holiest sites in their theology. Someone – no one knows who – left it there in the mid-19th century and to this day none of the churches has agreed on who the ladder belongs to. So it sits there, on a ledge above the sturdy wooden doors, a reminder of the contested ground beneath it.

“They are always asking about the ladder,” said Archbishop Hierapolis Isidoros with a sigh. Isidoris, with his bushy black beard, is the Greek Orthodox Superior of the Holy Sepulchre Church. He represents one of the three main denominations that claim ownership of the land. The others are the Catholic Church, represented by the Franciscan order, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. There are yet three more groups that also claim rights of usage: the Coptic, Syrian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

The ladder remains perhaps the most visible indicator of historic tensions between churches at the Holy Sepulchre. Asked if the denominations normally get along Isidoris said, “Yes,” then hesitated and added, “Not always. Sometimes we have troubles.”

But recently the churches have put their differences aside to present a united front. In February this year, in a dramatic act of protest against the Israeli government’s tax plan, the various denominational leaders agreed to shutter the doors of the church, one of Jerusalem’s most popular tourist sites. By bucking their usual trend of reluctant cooperation, the churches have sent a strong message to the Israeli government: we won’t have our affairs meddled in!

Church leaders perceived the Israelis as launching a two-pronged attack on their finances. First, a new tax policy to levy municipality taxes was proposed. It would have incurred payments on commercial activities such as hotels and other businesses run by churches. Second, a new law would have allowed the government to expropriate church properties sold since 2010.

Jerusalem’s Christian community galvanized in opposition to the proposed changes and some see the proposed taxes as an existential threat. According to a Franciscan friar who did not wish to be named as his current role at the Holy Sepulchre prevents him from talking to press, the Church views the taxes as an encroachment on Christians in Jerusalem. “Israel will start with a tax on mercantile activities and then will go on to push the church out,” he said.

The government backed down rapidly in response to the protest. Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem suspended the tax plan and a debate on the property bill has been pushed back, with Israeli officials saying a committee will look into it. After three days, the church reopened but its closure is still a topic of discussion within the hallowed walkways of the Via Dolorosa.

(Godland News / Augusta Anthony)

“The churches cannot afford to pay the taxes,” said a priest from the Coptic Church, lingering by the small archway, marked only by a faded bronze plaque, which leads from the narrow streets of the Old City into the courtyard of the church. He said there are no substantial problems between the churches and, if there are disputes, “it’s a matter of organization.”

The organization of the Holy Sepulchre is a delicate choreography based on ancient customs and precedent set during the British mandate of the early twentieth century. “In Jerusalem, what is most crucial is the status quo,” said Dr. Avital Heyman-Aranne, an interdisciplinary researcher based in Jerusalem who was hosting a tour of the church one weekend this spring soon after it had reopened.

The Holy Sepulchre beats with the syncopated rhythm of worship and ceremony established by this status quo. It may seem chaotic, but each group gets its space to perform the rituals that are important to it. On a recent Sunday, Armenian pilgrims swarmed to the light of a tall iron candleholder in the Armenian section, between the entrance and the site of Jesus’ tomb. Dozens of candles, drooping heavily with wax, burned a bright yellow fire. The pilgrims each clutched their bundle of 33 beeswax tapered candles, thin like breadsticks, bought from the nearby souk. They brought their own bundles to light, extinguish and take home.

(Godland News / Augusta Anthony)

They collected the Holy Fire of the Holy Sepulchre, a religious symbol of the miracle believed to occur each year around Easter. On Holy Saturday, preceding the Orthodox Easter, it is believed that a Holy Fire spontaneously combusts inside the marble tomb of Jesus’ resurrection.  Huddled just feet away from this site, the pilgrims earnestly lit their candles, hoping to carry the spirit of this fire and Christ their savior with them. The Greek airline Aegean Air transports fire from the flame back to Greece on three specially scheduled flights each year, according to a representative.

As the pilgrims shoved and elbowed each other to get closer, a procession of Armenian priests rushed past, chanting. Then those lined up to visit inside the tomb just steps away were pushed aside and a priest in long robes cleared the path. It was time for the Franciscans to make their procession. As they did, the path cleared on the other side of the tomb to usher in the Coptic monk who blessed those who entered the crypt where Jesus’ head is said to have laid.

The afternoon continued in this way, a constant rumble of religious fervor, of prayer and throat-catching incense and liturgical song. Different Christian rituals were performed alongside each other, representing the customs of each denomination. They rushed parallel to one another, like airplanes narrowly avoiding each other’s flight paths.

Sitting on a low wooden bench in the entrance, Wajeeh Nuseibeh, 69, oversaw it all. Nuseibeh is charged with unlocking the Holy Sepulchre’s door each morning. It’s a tradition he claims his family has upheld since the seventh century.

(Godland News / Augusta Anthony)

According to the Nuseibeh family website, the keys to the Holy Sepulchre were placed in their custody in the wake of the Arab-Islamic capture of Jerusalem by Caliph Omar. After the crusades, they say they were entrusted with keeping the peace on this holy site in perpetuity. According to Nuseibeh, his job is vital so as “to be neutral between the Christians.”

“Nobody is allowed to open, only me,” he said and took the heavy lock down from the door to pose for a photograph. Nuseibeh is stout with wispy gray hair and a mustache. He wore a suit and seemed to like being photographed. On his phone he saves images of his interactions with world leaders and celebrities. He has met Superman, President Trump and the Pope, to name a few. His favorite President was Jimmy Carter. “He is very simple and quiet and he wants to hear and to talk,” Nuseibeh said.

But Nuseibeh is not the only Muslim to claim control of this site. Adeem Jawad Joudeh Al Husseini, 53, is the key custodian of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While Nuseibeh opens the door, Al Husseini keeps the key. His family website too boasts an illustrious and ancient history. And his business card features the ancient key, a long metal rod with a triangular point and circle on the end. It slots into the lock that Nuseibeh proudly guards.

Between the two of them, access to the Holy Sepulchre remains a clandestine activity. The Franciscan friar said there is a secret back entrance through the Greek Orthodox section of the church. But getting through is a rare occurrence, not least since language barriers often hamper communication between the denominations, he said.

The friar, in his early thirties and imposing in his chocolate brown robes and closely shaven ginger beard, hails from California. He said the recent closure “wasn’t a difficult decision.” The denominations are getting along better now, he said, as they see Israel threatening the rights of Christians in the Holy Land.

But united as the churches might appear now, the intricacies of negotiation linger in everything from the turning of a key, to the lighting of the candle and the movement of a ladder. Perhaps Dr. Theodossios Mitropoulos, doctor of conservation and restoration for the Greek Orthodox Church at the Holy Sepulchre said it best. “It’s very complicated this monument,” he said.

As published in The Media Project


Seeking comfort in crochet

TEL AVIV — On the second floor of a dilapidated building in south Tel Aviv, a burst of color and cheerful energy emerges from a small room. Inside, pockets of chatter in a variety of languages hum through the sunlit studio. About a dozen women, squeezed onto three couches draped in brightly patterned fabric, are crocheting baskets. Others wash dishes or make small talk around a kitchen table.

These women are some of the more than 90 African asylum seekers to find a second home at Kuchinate, an arts collective that empowers women to make household items out of recycled fabric using the art of crochet.

Once a project is completed, the women from the collective decide how much to charge for it. This basket, an original design, caused lively discussion as they discussed a price. (Godland News / Liz Donovan)

Surrounding the women are dozens of already completed baskets in a variety of shapes and shades lining shelves, stacked in corners, strewn on tables and overflowing onto the floor. Other more ambitious handmade projects, like three-legged stools, rugs and poufs, are scattered among the inventory.

An array of baskets created by the Kuchinate women on display at the Tel Aviv studio. (Godland News / Liz Donovan)

Kuchinate provides the women an opportunity to earn money to support their families. But, more importantly, the collaborative nature of the collective, as well as the soothing act of crocheting itself, enables them to have a sense of stability and community. It also gives them a connection to home. They perform traditional coffee ceremonies for visitors, cook native dishes (I was served a heaping plate of chickpeas and spongy African flatbread called injera) and speak their own languages – Kuchinate means “crochet” in Tigrinya, a language spoken in Eritrea, for example.

Much has been written in recent months about the tens of thousands of migrants living illegally in Israel and Israel’s controversial plan – temporarily on hold – to deport them en mass to Africa. More than three quarters of the migrants are men, but the story of the women is rarely told. Many of the women who entered the country through eastern Sudan and the Sinai Peninsula were victims of torture, sexual assault and human trafficking.

According to the United National Refugee Agency, about 90 percent of the some 38,500 African asylum seekers and refugees currently in Israel originate from Eritrea and Sudan. Others come from Nigeria, Ivory Coast and other areas of Africa. About 17 percent of the population of asylum seekers are women and about half of the women are registered as mothers, according to a report by the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel. Because of their immigration status, they’re denied access to government assistance programs and health care and are at risk for exploitation. Their struggle is what inspired the creation of the collective.

“I made sure that Kuchinate was born from the desire to provide psychological, economic and social empowerment to women who were in a desperate state of survival,” co-founder Diddy Mymin Kahn wrote on the nonprofit’s website.

Kahn, a South African psychologist specializing in trauma, runs the center with Azezet Habtezghi Kidane, a Catholic nun originally from Eritrea, who provides spiritual support as well as counseling to the women. Known as Sister Aziza, Kidane is well respected internationally for her humanitarian efforts. Her work with refugees earned her the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking In Persons Heroes Award in 2012. In 2016, she and Kahn co-penned a support manual entitled A Guide to Recovery for Survivors of Torture.

Kuchinate volunteer Gina Walker, a student at Tel Aviv University studying global migration and policy, says that the relationship between Kahn, whom she describes as a “powerhouse,” and Kidane, who is more grounded, is key to the success of the collective. “They balance each other,” Walker said. “You need someone to have the big ideas and someone to tame it.”

This month, the voices of the Kuchinate women are being heard all the way across the world in New York City. Through the collective, four women collaborated with Israeli fiber artist Gil Yefman to break out of the basket-making mold and create life-sized crochet artworks for an art exhibition about sexual assault and genocide called “Violated! Women in Holocaust and Genocide.” From inside each piece, decorated with images relating to each woman’s experience, a recording of the artist sharing a personal story will play. The exhibition, produced by the Remember the Women Institute, can be viewed at the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Gallery (31 Mercer St. in Manhattan) from April 12 to May 12.

Yefman is hopeful more women from the collective will be empowered to use their art as a way to express themselves freely and share their personal experiences. He added that the collaboration gave the women the experience of “stepping outside of the collective while creating a better resonance for the collective.”

Mostly, though, the women work on the craft as a way to support themselves and their families. “They’re in survival mode,” says Walker. “They’re very focused on making money to feed the children.”

Favor Agbo, one of the first women to join the collective and a skillful craftswoman, is quick to lend a hand to her peers. On a balmy Monday afternoon in March, I watched as Agbo closely inspected a half-completed basket. Seeing an error in the carefully stitched handicraft, she removed a few inches of string and turned to the woman sitting to her right who had asked for help.

“Use your finger,” Agbo demonstrated, holding a bright pink-tipped fingernail against the mustard-colored fabric as she expertly maneuvered the needle through the opening she created with her hand. “Don’t pull.” She returned the basket to the artist, who cautiously followed Agbo’s instructions. When the woman completed the small basket later that afternoon, she held it up triumphantly, inspiring whoops and cheers from around the room.

That basket will sell for little more than a few dozen shekels (about $10 USD). “The money is nothing, but we’re happy,” said Agbo.

Walker, who was interviewed in Tel Aviv this spring just before the Jewish festival of Passover, explained that recognizing the struggle of these women, who work in a constant state of instability, is essential now more than ever. “For Passover, we’re celebrating our freedom,” she said. “These are people who are not free."

A version of this story appeared on Religion News Service.