Monday, 8 January 2018

Arab Christians in the Holy Land

Followers of the Messiah

The Arab Christians - the Christians are named in Arabic 'Messahi' or' followers of the Messiah' (derived from the Arabic word Masih or Messiah) are Arabic speaking Christians or descendants of Arabic speaking Christians, who are estimated to be around fifteen to twenty-five million worldwide. A significant proportion of Arab Christians are under severe pressure, including in countries such as Syria, home country of some 700.000 Arab Christians, and Iraq, which has one of the world's oldest continuously living Christian communities.

Israel also has a significant group of Arab Christians (estimated 170.000 people), spread throughout the country. These communities, which identify themselves as Arabic or Palestinian, claim that they go back to the beginning of Christianity.

But the Arab-Christian communities also suffer in the Holy Land, not least because of their less-than- enviable position in Israeli society. Tertio went on a visit to the Arab-Christian village of Fassouta, and found out why this village on the Israeli-Lebanese border wants to put itself on the international tourist map.

Welcome to Fassouta.        

Fassouta has no exit. Once you have entered the village, you have to leave it on the same road ", says Edgar Dakwar, Mayor of Fassouta.

The village of Fassouta is located on the flank of Mount Meron, in the north of Israel, about an hour and a half drive from Nazareth.

This Christian village in Upper Galilea is hardly known, despite the fact that it has great potential, especially for Christian pilgrims who visit Christian sites in Israel.

With about three thousand inhabitants, Fassouta is the largest Christian village in Israel. Next to Fassouta is the almost equally large Christian neighboring village Ma' iliya. Both villages are the only two villages in Israel with an exclusively Christian population. The Arabic-speaking inhabitants adhere to an oriental faith, more precisely the Greek Catholic or Melkite movement, which is said to be one of the oldest movements in Christianity. The Melkites trace their origins back to the Christian community of Antiochia, dating from the first century after Christ, when Christianity was introduced by Saint Paul.

The patron saint of the village is Mar-Elias (mar is Armenian for Saint). On the central square of Fassouta is a large statue of St Elias. The inhabitants believe that the Saint protected them in 2006 when missiles from Lebanon landed in the village, and when as by miracle nobody was injured.

Another famous tradition of Fassouta is the annual Christmas market, which attracts thousands of visitors from the surrounding villages, Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.


As part of the re-branding of Fassouta and the surrounding villages of Ma' iliya and Ilabun as tourist destinations, I visit the region as part of a group of fifty journalists from more than 20 different countries. A group of Israeli journalists want to show us as many facets of the country as possible, including less well-known places and sensitive issues.

At the entrance of Fassouta we are greeted by a more than life-size Jesus statue, and by the fanfare of the village that accompanies us to the church in the center of Fassouta. The fanfare, which consists of up to thirty members, is composed of members of the Catholic Scouts of Fassouta. It is just around sunset, which makes our arrival in Fassouta very atmospheric.

After a tour of the village and a meal prepared by local women, we will meet the priest and mayor and spend the night with the local people. This was the idea of Stella Ashkar, a journalist who lives with her husband and two sons in Fassouta.


The guide who leads us through the village is thirty year old Hatim. He returned to live in his hometown only two months ago, after spending eight years in London, where he worked for Vidal Sassoon. Through Facebook he got back into contact with a girl he knew from Fassouta, and after many chats and Skype conversations he decided to give up his job in London and fulfill his family's wish: to marry an Arab-Christian girl from the village. Two months after his return, Hatim is full of doubts about his future and whether he has made the right decision. Because he speaks English, he is now trying to make a living as a guide. Unfortunately, he hardly has anything to say about the history of the village, and he is not prepared for the arrival of fifty international journalists/tourists.

Tourists in Fassouta are rather an unusual appearance. The inhabitants hope to attract tourists from Europe, the United States and the rest of the world, but have as an obstacle the fact that they - with a few rare exceptions only speak Arabic. There are also no hotels or restaurants.  According to Mayor Edgar Dakwar, the city council has been making efforts for years to put Fassouta on the tourist map, and to attract money from both government and private investors, but the process of turning Fassouta into a tourist destination has been difficult.


The question is whether the village is really ready for tourists. The unfavorable location just next to the Lebanese border does not make attracting visitors any easier, although the village has an interesting history.

The oldest part of Fassouta dates from 1881 when the village had about two hundred inhabitants. In 1517, Fassouta was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. It had Greek-Catholic and Muslim inhabitants -the latter, however, were almost all driven out of the village or fled in 1948 - while most Christians remained. As a result, the village now has an exclusively Christian population.

We visit the Mar-Elias Church. This year it is the 110th anniversary of the church. Although the exterior of the church gives a rather modern impression, the interior oozes with beautiful icons. The icons occupy a central place in the oriental or Byzantine rite, from the veneration for the image of God and the saints. Christ, God's son, may be depicted in the Eastern tradition.


At the end of our guided tour we end up in an Irish pub, the Grandfather House, an initiative of a returning villager, Jery Dakwar. The racks are filled with up to fifty different types of spirits, and we are treated to beer, including Hoegaarden and Leffe. The muscular and tatooed owner of the pub lived for two years in Belgium and the Netherlands, where he collaborated on theatre plays and musicals.

Mayor Edgar Dakwar declares himself satisfied with the return of young people from abroad to Fassouta. Our conversation takes place in a mixture of Arabic and English. According to Edgar Dakwar, Fassouta's main problem is the lack of employment and the resulting exodus of young people from the village. Most young people do not return after their studies outside Fassouta. Through the Catholic Scouts - which are very proud of their Arab-Christian and Palestinian origins - the mayor hopes to counteract the depopulation.

Nevertheless, Fassouta has three thousand inhabitants, making it the largest Christian village in Israel. The level of education is high. According to 2000 figures, 60,5 % of young people passed the Bagrut matriculation exam, comparable to the Baccalauréat in France. Many young people from Fassouta become doctors, engineers or lawyers.

Another major problem is the geographical location of the village. Due to the proximity of the Lebanese border, the village is isolated. There is only one street, along which you enter and exit the village to Haifa or Nazareth. According to Mayor Edgar Dakwar, the inhabitants of Fassouta are not allowed to cross the border to Lebanon, not even to visit family members.

There is no industry in Fassouta to provide jobs for young people, nor does agriculture (especially olive-growing), which we did in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, produce enough anymore ", notes Edgar Dakwar with regret.

“Recently, we joined forces with 66 other Arab villages in Israel and approached the government to denounce the injustice that Jewish villages and towns receive far more subsidies than their Arab counterparts. A conference was organized and we were promised that our 67 Arab villages will receive USD 2.5 million over the next five years”.

Dakwar considers this as a historic first step, although the sum granted is far from sufficient to put Fassouta on an equal footing with the Jewish villages. Nevertheless, he decided to "participate in this process, to talk and negotiate by legal means" and "so that justice can take place". Dakwar also emphasises:"As a minority we want peace here and in the rest of the world".


What is not mentioned by any of the villagers during our stay is the delicate geographical position of Fassouta, on the front line between Israel and Lebanon. In 2006 the village was bombed with Katyusha missiles for months and in response, the Israeli army sent artillery batteries to Fassouta, which they set up in the village. The inhabitants were forced to leave their homes and were evacuated by the Israeli government to so-called protected areas. This meant that normal daily life and all economic activities were stopped. Normally Israeli villages on a front line receive compensation for the economic damage suffered.

Not so for the Arab villages, however. Various residents of Fassouta subsequently lodged complaints with the Higher Court of Appeal. One of them, Suleiman Haalek, remembers the war very well. As the owner of a popular pizzeria in Fassouta since 1997, he lost around ten thousand euros as a result of the war. “Before the war, my pizzeria was a meeting point for the youngsters of the village. At least half of the young people came by daily, and my delivery service reached almost every house in the village and in the surrounding villages”, says Haalek. Another complaint came from engineer Raik Matar, who carried out construction work in Fassouta and the surrounding area. During the period that he was banned from moving outside the protected areas, the construction works were shut down and he lost in the amount of many thousands of euros, plus his office costs and contributions for various insurances. If his office had been in a Jewish village, the state would have paid him back the entire sum”, says his lawyer Dahwar.

Small community with a big heart.

We are Israeli but not Jewish, Arab but not Muslim, Catholic but not Roman Catholic”, said priest Michael Asi.

I meet priest Michael Asi, spiritual leader of the Greek Catholic or Melkite community of Fassouta, together with my Italian colleague Alberto Custadero, who works for La Republicca. Priest Asi speaks to us half in Arabic, half in Italian, and is animated when he tells us about his last stay in Rome, two months ago. “Many people in Europe do not know that Christians are still living everywhere in Israel", deplores priest Asi. He himself was confronted with this when he studied in Rome. When I was asked about my origins, I said that I was' from the Holy Land'. But every time I said that I am Israeli, but not Jew, the surprise was great. Moreover, when I added that I am Arab, but not a Muslim; and Catholic, but not Roman Catholic, they looked at me as if I came from another planet”.

The doctrine that priest Asi follows is that of the Greek-Catholic or Melkite Church. He tells us that this movement goes back to "the first century after Christ, when Christianity was introduced by the first apostles (for the ‘apostles’, he uses the Arabic word roesoel which means' messengers' - in Islam the word rasoel Allah is used for the prophet Mohamed).

Priest Asi says that in contrast to the West, where the church is more centrally run, there are many movements among Eastern Christians, with several patriarchs or bishops with powers over certain church areas. “As Greek Catholics, however, we recognise the Pope as the head of the church, but when we celebrate Mass, we do so according to the Byzantine rite”, states priest Asi.


The fact that the worship of the Melkites takes place according to the Byzantine rite is an important remnant of the times when Palestine was part of the Byzantine Empire and was under Hellenistic influence (hence the term Greek-Catholic). The believers assume that the liturgy of the Eastern Christians goes back to the rites of the apostles in Jerusalem.

Unlike some Eastern churches, where worship still takes place in the language of Jesus, Aramaic, the worship of the Melkites is held in Arabic, the language they took over from Arab conquerors in the seventh century.

Rome or Constantinople

An important turning point in the history of the Melkites was the moment when "the East no longer recognized the pope as the head of the church, and the West did not take the East into account ", to quote Michael Asi. The West considered the Catholic Church and Rome to be the center of Christianity, while the East had its own seat in Constantinople”, said priest Asi.

The priest thus refers to the so-called' Great schism', when in 1054 a difference in insight into the role of the Holy Spirit gave rise to a rift between the Eastern Orthodox church and the church in Rome.


But in the eighteenth century, part of the Eastern Orthodox Church decided to return under the authority of the Pope. That is why we call ourselves Greek Catholic”, explains Michael Asi. Since 1742, the Greek Catholic Church has been in full communion with the church in Rome.

In addition to the liturgical differences, the Greek Catholic Church has other differences, particularly in the area of canonics. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, it is customary in the Greek Catholic Church for priests to marry and found a family (the celibacy only applies to bishops).

According to the priest, the inhabitants of Fassouta are very pious. We have no trouble filling the church, unlike many Christian communities in the West”, said Michael Asi. On the contrary, the church is actually far too small for the thousands of believers who attend Sunday worship services. Our faith is also reflected in the way we live. We try to do as much good as possible for our community and beyond. Everyone is committed to each other. An example are our Catholic Scouts. We try to teach them as many Christian values as possible and to make them an active part of the community, in the hope that the community will continue to take on great significance in their future lives”, concludes priest Asi.

Israeli or Arabic Christians?

When we say that we are Israeli, we are considered traitors by the Arabs. And if we say that we are Arab, this is taken badly by the Israelis”, summarizes priest Michael Asi.

Arab Christians are an integral part of the very colorful Israeli society. They can be described as Israeli citizens whose linguistic heritage or ethnic identity is defined as Arabic. Today, they account for 2% of the Israeli population.

However, the Arab Christians or Christian Arabs, as they are also called in Israel, face numerous problems.

For example, it is difficult to preserve their individuality and survival as Christian communities, as these are often scattered small communities. A prime example are the villages of Fassouta, Mi' iliya and Ilabun, which, because of their geographical position, are cut off from other (Palestinian) Christian villages, as well as from the rest of Israel (they are located in the far north of Israel).


Moreover, Christians in Israel are in a dilemma when it comes to their identity. On the one hand, they are Israeli citizens. On the other hand, however, many of them also feel connected with Palestine, which is often their country of origin. Priest Michael Asi tells me that his father was born in Fassouta, in Palestine at the time. But the fact that they also define themselves as Arabic or even Palestinian Christians is a thorn in the eye of the Israeli state. Eighty per cent of the Christians living in Israel are defined as Christian Arabs, and many of them identify themselves as Palestinian Christians. Although a small proportion of Israeli Christians dissociate themselves from the designation' Arab Christians' and hence also from their Islamic counterparts, most Israeli Christians today regard themselves culturally and linguistically as Arab or Palestinian Christians, with ancestors dating back to Christ's first followers.


Moreover, because the Arab-Christian communities fall under the designation' Arabic localities' used by the Israeli authorities, they suffer discrimination from the government. This reduces their resources and makes it difficult for them to offer the local youth prospects for the future.

In September 2014, Christians were given an independent representation in the Parliamentary Committee for Equal Opportunities in the Labor Market.  In reality, however, equal opportunities are still a long way off. It suffices to visit villages and cities with an Arab population and compare them with predominantly Jewish villages and cities.

A visit to Nazareth's Town Hall shows the dire situation in which the' Arab localities' find themselves. The building in which the mayor and the town council are located is far too small and is clearly dating back to the seventies. But because Nazareth only consists of an Arabs, there is no money for renovation. A striking contrast with the brand-new building of the Haifa municipality.

The radiance of the Christians in Israel seems to be diminishing. An example: Nazareth, of which the population consisted some ten years ago of 60% of Christians, nowadays counts 70% Muslims and only 30% Christians.


Another challenge is the diversity within Israel's Christian community. The majority of Christians in Israel (and in particular the Arab Christians) belong to the Greek Catholic Church. The rest of the Israeli Christians are mainly associated with Eastern Orthodox churches, which are often linked to the specific ethnic identity of these Christian communities, such as the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Armenian Church and the Ethiopian Church.

The inhabitants of Fassouta and Mal' iliya adhere almost exclusively to the Greek Catholic Church. But even in a village with only three thousand inhabitants such as Fassouta, there appears to be divisions within the Christian community. For example, a (smaller) section of the population appears to be adhering to the movement of the movement of the neochatechumenal way, a new Catholic movement which enjoys a big popularity among Israeli Christians. This movement draws its inspiration from the catechumenate of the early Catholic Church and the preparation of converts from paganism for baptism. This highly charismatic movement successfully recruits numerous new converts.

Eastern Orthodox, Greek Catholic and Melkite. 

The church is one, but we - in the east - tried to make as many different versions of it as possible", smile priest Asi.

The first Christian communities in Roman Palestine would have been Aramaic speaking Messianic Jews. Unlike the Assyrian Nestorians - a branch of the very widespread Syrian Orthodox Christianity - the majority of Palestinian Christians decided, after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A. D., to merge into the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Roman emperors, the part of the church that after the ‘Great Schism’ of 1054  would be part of the orthodox church. Due to the fact that they joined the Roman emperors, the Syrian Orthodox Christians described the Palestinian Christians as "Melkites" (derived from the Arab word malik, which means "king"), in other words, "followers of the kingdom/Kingdom".

In the following centuries the Melkites underwent a very strong Hellenistic influence and exchanged their western Aramaic dialect for Greek. At that time (seventh century) Jerusalem and Byzantine Palestine became the epicenter of Greek culture in the Levant/ Middle East.


In 1054 the so-called "Great schism" took place within the Christian church, the schism between the Roman Catholic church on one side and the Eastern Orthodox churches on the other side. The Melkites became part of the Eastern Orthodox churches.

The disagreement between the Western and Eastern church had been going on for a long time and was partly due to the fact that the Western church considered the Patriarch of Rome (the Pope) to be the highest of the five patriarchs. The Oriental church, however, considered the five patriarchs to be equal and saw Constantinople as' the new Rome'. This situation led to a deadlock when the Pope claimed authority over the four Eastern Patriarchs, while the Patriarch of Constantinople claimed himself to be an ecumenical Patriarch, which the Pope misinterpreted as an indication of' universal Patriarch', which was therefore contested by the Western Church. The direct cause of the schism, however, was the disagreement over the so-called' trinity doctrine'. According to the Latin Church, the Holy Spirit comes from God the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit receives his personality from God the Father and from God the Son. The Orthodox Church does not recognize this and has retained the original form based on Christ's words, which state that the Holy Spirit arises" from the Father ", without any addition, such as "and the Son ".

Melkites worldwide

The region formed by the modern Israel and the Palestinian state is considered as the' Holy Land' by Christians and thus also by the Melkites, with as important holy cities Nazareth and Jerusalem in Israel, and Bethlehem in Palestine.

In June 2017, Patriarch Youssef Absi was elected Archbishop of the Greek Catholic Melkites, a month after the Vatican accepted the resignation of his predecessor Gregory III Laham.

Although the Melkite Catholic Church has Byzantine roots and follows the Byzantine rite for the liturgy, this church is fully in communion with the Catholic Church, especially after the reconfirmation of the union with Rome in 1724.

Melkite Christians live all over the world in Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Canada, France, Mexico, the United States, Venezuela and Sweden. Worldwide they are about 1.6 million.

In Israel, Greek Catholics (or Melkites) are the largest group of Christians. The majority of some 133,000 Arab Christians, who are themselves as indigenous, describe themselves as Melkite.

The rest of the Israeli-Arab Christians belong mainly to several Eastern Orthodox churches which also have their roots in the Middle East, such as the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic-Orthodox Church (the largest Christian denomination in Egypt), the Armenian Church and the Ethiopian Church. Israel also has an important Maronite community, an oriental church that remained in communion with the church in Rome (and therefore did not join the Orthodox movement in 1054) and still holds its worship in Aramaic, the language of Christ. A small minority of Christians belongs to the Anglican or Lutheran church. There are also numerous Evangelistmovements in Israel, which are enjoying increasing popularity among Israeli Christians.

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