After Yad Vashem yesterday we drove to the last Christian village on the West Bank, Taybeh. I last visited this remarkable village two or three years ago and was pleased to have the opportunity to come back.
Fr Raed has been the Roman Catholic priest here for the last seven years. The huge problem for Palestinian Christians is that there is little or no work, little housing, few prospects and not a lot of hope. So, they are leaving in droves. Taybeh used to have a population of 3,400; now there are 1,300.
How, then, to encourage local young men (particularly) to stay and maintain this Christian presence here? So far the priests (three of them) have:
- bought an olive press and market olive oil in French supermarkets – this year they will make a profit for the first time;
- brew and market beer (a bit girly to the taste, but does the business!)
- provide employment in all sorts of services
- built and run a home for elderly people (a new phenomenon in a culture of extended family relationships and responsibilities).
In addition Fr Raed has established a youth choir of 50 young people and they ahve joined with youth choirs from the Muslim and Jewish communities elsewhere to record a CD. Along with the other preists in Taybeh, they now celebrate Easter together (on the Orthodox date) in order to present a united witness to Muslims who cannot understand why Christians celebrate several staggered crucifixions/resurrections.
The man is a fast-talking, over-energetic ball of enthusiasm. But he laces his talk with theology and economics, casting fresh and refreshing light on all sorts of issues. He even has a PhD in ‘Violence and non-violence in Islamic Tradition and Thought’.
What was most remarkable about this encounter, however, was his insistence that we should not be afraid for him or his people. They will stay and be a Christian presence and witness in land that is being abandoned by many because of the difficulty of living there with any hope for bringing up children and forging a future. He said:
We will stay here in a small community and under the shadow of the cross.
This echoes the stance of my friends in Zimbabwe.
But, interestingly, he turns on its head the notion that those who suffer are somehow ‘weak’. No, he says:
We are not weak people – we are strong people because we choose to stay here. Let the weak leave or stay at their new home in front of the television: the strong stay here.
This would sound like bravado in the mouth of some; but, it is spoken with both humility and determined confidence by Fr Raed. He is adamant that visitors like us should not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but support those who seek a third way, the way of peace and coexistence on the basis of a common humanity.
Interestingly, this plea echoes the similar one we heard in Bethlehem a few days ago – a plea we have heard only from Palestinian Christians and nobody else.
Well, that powerful experience left us with much to discuss last night before we left Jerusalem to head off – via Wadi Qelt, Jericho and the wonderful Bet She’an (all further reminders that empires come and go, but empires never listen to their prophets) – to Galilee where we will spend the next few days before returning to London.
On the way out of Jerusalem we passed a ‘restaurant’ which dared to call itself ‘Doggy Style’ – its subheader was ‘Hot Dog Heaven’. That was a relief…