A Muslim man's sacred job renting crosses in Jerusalem

As seen in The Media Project:

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.

A centuries-old dispute comes to a head at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

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)

Whose church is it? Greeks and Arabs struggle over Orthodox Christianity

KAFR KANNA — George Jaraisi owns a souvenir shop catering to Orthodox pilgrims just feet away from St. George’s Orthodox Church here. Among his merchandise is local wine – Kanna wine – named in commemoration of the Biblical miracle that is associated with this town: Jesus turning water into wine. Among the bottles on his shelves is a portrait of Jaraisi’s grandfather, Issla Jaraisi, a native Palestinian resident of the town who helped rebuild St. George’s several decades ago. But despite his strong connection to the church, Jaraisi said that he never even steps foot inside.

St. George’s, which is run by Greek monks like the Rev. Chrestostomos, does not serve his interests, Jaraisi said. “They want everything to be Greek,” he said. “Instead of bringing people together, they’re splitting them apart.”

Both Jaraisi and Chrestostomos are Greek Orthodox, like most of the 200,000 Christians in the Holy Land. But like many other Orthodox Christians, Jaraisi feels misunderstood by the predominately Greek leadership of the Holy Synod, the governing council of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and of the bishops under their auspices.

As the Christian Palestinian community continues to emigrate, now only at about 1 percent of the total Palestinian population, there is heightened tension between an increasingly shrinking indigenous Palestinian laity and the Greek priests of the leadership.

“There are very few Arab priest and monks within the Jerusalem Patriarchate. The laity have never really trusted the patriarchate,” said Hana Bendcowsky, program director at the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations.

Today, there are 1,800 Arab Orthodox Christians in Kfar Kanna, a village in the north of Israel near Nazareth. Orthodoxy’s presence here began in the 4th century when St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, came to Syria Palaestina on a religious pilgrimage in which she sought out every place where Jesus performed a miracle.

In the year 327, a monastery was built around the church to house the dozens of monks who since have preserved the patrimony of the holy site through centuries of fires, earthquakes, and conflict – most notably during the Persian invasion of the 5th century. St. George’s reached its age of splendor in the late 19th century when Nikolai II, the last Russian emperor, bequeathed a large donation resulting in the installation of marble floors and floor-to-ceiling murals in the church. The former bustle of monastic life has been reduced to one abbot who preserves the besieged universe of St. George’s, Father Chrestostomos of Thessaloniki.

Chrestostomos said that where he’s from is not relevant to how well he can address the needs of his Palestinian flock. “For monks, we are like soldiers for Jesus. Everywhere is the same, we go where the patriarchate moves us,” said Chrestostomos. He dons a flowing black gown, and grows his hair out in a ponytail and in a long brown beard. His introspective brown eyes convey a loneliness that comes from being the only Orthodox priest in the community, away from both his native Greece and his fellow monks. “I don’t have friends here, I live alone, but I’m here for the families of this town. Someone must continue the tradition here.”

That tradition, though, is contested, based on conflicting ideas of the church’s purpose and the people it serves. Chrestostomos argues for the continuity of Greek cultural presence. “The abbot of this church must be a monk, and it is not easy to be an abbot. The fathers who led this church have always come from Byzantium and spoke Greek. The Greeks continue the original kind of Christianity.”

Chrestostomos was born in Greece, and his trajectory to St. George’s corresponds with how most enter the leadership of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, one of the 15 self-governing or autocephalous branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Jerusalem Patriarchate represents about 130,000 Orthodox Christians in Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan.

Chrestostomos insists that although he was born in Greece, he is steeped in Palestinian culture. “As a small child, around the age of seven, I left Greece to live at Mount Zion in Jerusalem. I grew up, and became a part of the patriarchate. Now, I’m like a visitor in Greece.”

In addition to the clergy who come from Greece, there are also Orthodox priests who were born and raised in Israel and Palestine, among them Archbishop Atallah Hanna. He in no way sees himself inferior to the Greek priests.

“We reject and refuse to be looked at as a minority,” said Atallah Hanna, one of a handful of Palestinians who are members of the Jerusalem Patriarchate. Among the twenty bishops, only four are Palestinian.

Archbishop Atallah Hanna in Bethlehem, 2018.  Courtesy of Zeina Jallad

Archbishop Atallah Hanna is notable for his vocal political stances against the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories. He was arrested in 2002 during the height of the second intifada, and accused the Israeli government of unfairly targeting him for criticizing the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

“We are not a minority in our homeland. We are a main component in the Palestinian people and we are part of the struggle against occupation,” he said.

Archbishop Atallah Hana was born in the Arab town of Rameh in Israel’s north and grew attached to a local Orthodox priest there. He left for Thessaloniki to study Greek and the Bible, but insisted on being called his birth name Nizar.

“My family was so much in love with the great Arab poets and they decided to name me after Nizar Qabbani. I always went by Nizar even when I went to Greece, and I was always proud of that name. I was called Nizar until I became a priest.”

In 1992 Nizar was ordained a priest at the Church of the Holy Selpuchre in Jerusalem and was put in charge of Arabic language translation for all the church’s communiqué. It was then that he assumed the name Atallah Hanna or “gift of God.” “I climbed the ladder from the first plank of laity to the second of being a priest, third archimandrite and fourth as an archbishop – but I never changed. I will always be Nizar.”

“Christian churches in Palestine have always stood for the rights of the Palestinian people,” he said. “The church here is the mother of all churches and here is where Christianity was born...We’ve been here for more than 2,000 years and our roots are planted deep in this soil.”

Even during the Byzantine era when Greek influence was at its zenith, the patriarchs of Jerusalem were Arab, except for a brief interlude during the height of the Crusades in the 12th century. This changed in 1534 with the installation of Greek Patriarch Germanus who completely transformed the institution, removing Arab clergy and Hellenizing the Holy Synod. In 1669 his successor, Patriarch Dositheos, decreed only Greek clergy could gain entrance to the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, the patriarchate’s then-highest body. This is the tradition which Father Chrestestomos is referencing, and which Archbishop Atallah Hanna pushes back against.

But their differences are much more than just cultural. They are also about land, like so much else in Israel and Palestine.

The tension erupted into the public sphere most recently in January when Patriarch Theophilos III was met with hundreds of Palestinian protesters in Bethlehem, angry over the recent sale of church properties to Israeli companies and settler groups, both in Israel and East Jerusalem. In 2015, they sold large sections of the Caesarea National Park for $1 million, and in 2012 sold 240 apartments in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Oranim for $3.3 million to a shell company based in the Virgin Islands. According to real estate appraisers, the amount paid for the transactions was far below market-rate. Most of these deals weren’t made public until late 2017 when the Israeli newspaper Haaretz obtained several of the contracts. The Jerusalem Patriarchate is the second-largest holder of real estate in Israel after the state itself.

In the wake of these revelations, the mayors of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour refused to attend the Orthodox Christmas celebration in January 2018, the first time in decades that municipal leaders have publicly rallied against the head of the Patriarchate.

The main Palestinian Orthodox protest group is called Gheyr Mostaheq which means “illegitimate” in Arabic. Formed in 2005 during the push to have disgraced former Patriarch Irenaios I resign, Gheyr Mostaheq is composed of a number of groups, including the Central Council of Orthodox Christians and the Follow-Up Committee of the Arab Orthodox High Council. Irenaios was widely condemned during his tenure for a series of land sales in the Old City of Jerusalem to the right-wing settler group Ateret Cohanim and is accused by Gheyr Mostaheq activists of embezzling over a $1 million. They remain critical of the current patriarch for what they see as a continuation of improper land sales without consultation.

“Land is very important for the Palestinian Arab community. Selling land is almost like selling a piece of their body,” said Bendcowsky.

“There’s a popular opinion that most of the church’s money comes from local Palestinian laity and the church’s selling of its assets is a betrayal of that trust. Does the church property belong to the clergy or to the community?”

The patriarchate says that it doesn’t have a choice but to sell its properties. “The church is doing the work of the municipality in Jerusalem. We have schools, hospitals, and the most important tourist sites, all with no state involvement. It’s a great burden to maintain these sites,” said Assad Mazawi, legal advisor to the Jerusalem Patriarchate.

While many Palestinian Christians object to the selling of any church lands to Israelis regardless of them being in Israel or the West Bank, Mazawi says they are done pragmatically in the church’s interest and that there is no affiliation with the kind of Palestinian nationalism that Attlah Hanna articulates.

“We sometimes have different agendas than those groups,” said Mazawi, “The church has no Palestinian agenda.” Patriarch Theophilos re-affirmed this neutral viewpoint in a January op-ed in The Guardian when he said, “Jerusalem is a sacred gift, hallowed ground, for the entire world. Attempts to possess the holy city, or to define it in terms of exclusivity, will betray its true nature.”

In a striking omission, Theophilos doesn’t mention the dispossession and political repression of Palestinians in Jerusalem, a surprising fact given that most Palestinians, including members of his flock, cannot worship or reach the city without obtaining Israeli permits, a process shown to be increasingly difficult and arbitrary.

Chrestostomos blames the lack of Palestinian representation in the church on the fact that not many young people today want to become priests. “The Arabs want their children to be doctors and not priests. Today people believe in money. To reach the upper echelons of the church, one must enter the church at an early age.”

Yet Bishop Attallah Hanna says the church needs to try harder to incorporate the diversity of the communities they represent and forcefully act a political and social force for change. In 2009, over 3,000 Palestinian Christian leaders, including the Archbishop, signed the Kairos Palestine document outlining the church’s responsibility in opposing the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. “Christian Palestinians are not alien in their own church. For us who come from this land, we reject being treated as fourth or fifth-class citizens. We are proud Christians, and it is a duty for each one of us to love our homeland and protect this nation.”

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.

Virtual tourism: The next best thing to being there

NEW YORK & JERUSALEM — “You’re standing at the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Israel,” you hear a tour guide say. As that voice explains the significance of the place to people of Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths, you can see the golden roof glistening in the sunlight. You imagine it’s a warm day in the Holy Land, but you can’t feel the sun on your skin. Perhaps Muslims are entering the Dome of the Rock, or the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque, to visit the site and pray, but you can’t see or hear them. You can move around the site in all directions, not by turning your head, but by using a computer mouse.

This is the virtual pilgrimage experience.

“For every person who goes to Israel physically, there are hundreds of people who can’t,” said Gary Crossland, the founder of the Octagon Project, a non-profit that produces live-action, virtual tours of Israel and posts them online.

The cost of travel, lack of mobility, and family obligations are just a few factors that might keep people from making the trip, said Crossland, a Texas native, who has traveled to Israel 30 times.

Gary Crossland preparing video for virtual tours at the Judean Desert in Israel. (The Octagon Project)

Virtual tourism is nothing new. Pilgrims have always brought back “holy water,” a chunk of earth or a relic to hold on to and share the experience of the journey. Once photography was perfected, tourists brought back pictures of the holy places they’d visited. The embrace of video cameras, gadgets and social media to help people feel closer to the Holy Land is more recent. For years, there has been a 24-hour stagnant live feed of The Western Wall, one of the most religious sites for Jewish people. A few sites accept prayers via tweet to place in the cracks of that wall, an old tradition. On YouTube, there are thousands of traditional video tours, some with photo montages and some narrated.

But with more high-tech devices comes a more immersive experience. Organizations like the Octagon Project use virtual reality to offer that, along with a free, all-access digital pass to Israel. With the help of 360-degree cameras, online tourists can “visit” churches, historical locations, and get a glimpse into the country without a passport, luggage or a plane ticket.

Twenty years ago, Terry Modica, who is Catholic, actually made the 15-plus hour journey from her home in Florida to Israel for a pilgrimage. She saw the Church of the Annunciation, one of the most sacred places of the Christian faith, the Nativity site, where Jesus is said to have been born, and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth.

With a few clicks, you can experience Modica’s journey, too. Back then, she did not have the devices to create a high-tech experience like the Octagon Project, but the 1990s-era photos she collected during the trip are now on her website, Good News Ministries, in the form of a virtual tour. To see the inside of the church, click on the doors and after the webpage loads, you’re inside. Or click for a closer look at the loaves and fish mosaic at the Church of Multiplication, where Christians believe Jesus multiplied enough food to feed a large crowd of followers.

“People once looked at my low-resolution photos and thought ‘oh wow,’” Modica, 63, said. “Now I look at them and say ‘Oh crap.’”

Modica saves the notes from people who still appreciate the virtual journey.

“Although I am a born Catholic,” one virtual pilgrim wrote, “my knowledge of the places where all the miraculous and painful events took place were only imaginary…until now.”

Modica wants to return to the Holy Land to capture the trip for those behind a computer screen. This time, using virtual reality for a more immersive experience.

But some say a virtual trip to Israel won’t do.

“For me, I had to come back,” said Bonnie Bergman, a Boca Raton, Florida native who is Jewish.

On a warm Sunday in Jerusalem, she was back in the Holy Land for the first time in 40 years to meet long lost family members. Bergman stood on the outskirts of the Western Wall in awe.

"It’s emotional,” said Bergman, who is a retired teacher.

That type of meeting is something that can’t be done online. That, and walking into the crowds in the women’s section of the Western Wall to touch what’s believed to be the remains of the retaining wall of an ancient Jewish temple.

While Crossland’s virtual tour company also offers 10-day physical excursions to Israel, he does not think the emergence of the type of technology that may allow virtual travelers to engage other senses — like sight and smell — will have any impact on that business.

“We’re on the bleeding edge of that technology,” Crossland said. But there’s “nothing like being there.”

"When you can actually have boots on the ground and feel the heat on your skin, the packing, the anticipation — it’s a totally different feeling.”