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ICC Note:
Many people are unaware of the struggle of Israeli/Palestinian Christians. This article sheds some light on their life.

Faithful villagers keep it Christian in this last outpost in the Holy Land

For the full story go to SF Chronicle
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Taybeh, West Bank
— Two thousand years after Jesus came to Taybeh, the dwindling population of this tiny West Bank community is determined to survive and pass on to future generations their unique heritage: the last all-Christian village in the Holy Land.

The villagers of Taybeh are fiercely proud of their Christian heritage. In the entire Holy Land, there are only about 200,000 Christians, less than 2 percent of the population — 130,000 in Israel and 70,000 in the West Bank and Gaza . Other Christian towns such as Bethlehem and Ramallah now have Muslim majorities, but by strict tradition, only Christians may live in Taybeh or buy property there.

There are three churches in the village: Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic. In other towns in the Holy Land , Christian congregations often argue among themselves over control of holy sites, and they celebrate major festivals according to different calendars. In Jerusalem and Bethlehem , for example, there are three different Christmases continuing into January.

But in Taybeh, the churches are united. They celebrate Christmas together every Dec. 25.

Holiday preparations in this oasis of Christianity, like the pace of life in general, have remained almost unchanged for centuries. This morning, villagers and their guests attended services at one of the three churches, then took to the streets for the customary visits among family and friends — bringing the traditional dishes they have been preparing for weeks.

“Our people want to keep Taybeh Christian in order to preserve the Christian legacy,” said the Rev. Daoud Khoury, the Greek Orthodox priest. “If some other people came to this village, I think they would not protect or preserve it like the Christians. It’s a part of our life.

“At Christmas, we have unity,” he said. “The three churches are united with each other, and we make ceremonies and prayers together. On Palm Sunday, we go through the streets in this village together.”

“It’s beautiful,” said Maria Khoury, wife of the mayor and author of a series of children’s books about Christian life in the Holy Land . “The symbolism recalls Christ’s glorious walk into Jerusalem after he left our village 2,000 years ago.

“There is nothing more psychologically comforting and spiritually powerful than feeling the presence of God and knowing, as a Christian, you walked the same footsteps as Christ himself during his last retreat into the wilderness before his crucifixion,” said Khoury. In a village this small, many people share last names and are distantly related.

During renovations to the Greek Orthodox Church up the hill, the Rev. Khoury stumbled across an ancient mosaic decorated with birds and flowers, which may predate the Byzantine ruins of St. George’s . He has had a chapel built over the mosaic to protect it and is hoping it will be studied by scholars some day.

Greek Orthodox priests are allowed to marry, and he can trace his lineage in the local priesthood back 13 generations — more than 600 years. “The name ‘Khoury’ means priest,” he said.

Near the mosaic, cut into the mountainside, is a tiny cave with a hole in the roof leading up to a house above. According to Salem Demand, a local woman who is writing a history of the area, this was where Jesus hid during his stay in the village.

“He hid in this cave, and the family in the house above gave him food and water through the hole in the roof,” she said.

Demand said the family was called Sirhan, and some of their descendants still live in the village. By a strange twist of fate, a young Taybeh resident from the same family, Sirhan Sirhan, achieved international notoriety in 1968 when he assassinated Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles .

In the three years since he became their priest, at the height of the Palestinian intifada, Abusahlia has seen nearly 50 people leave Taybeh.

He said the first priority is to create work and improve the prospects for young people. He has started a medical center and an old people’s home, and he has created a cooperative to sell olive oil — Taybeh’s main crop — to a French distributor. Revenues go straight to the farmers, with a 15 percent tithe to the church to maintain the schools, old age home and aid to the poor.

Taybeh is surrounded by Muslim villages, Israeli military roadblocks and Jewish settlements. Muslim children study in the village’s schools. Their parents shop in Taybeh’s stores and work in its cottage industries, but relations can be strained.

In September, Muslim youths stormed the village and torched 16 houses after a Christian man was accused of getting a Muslim seamstress pregnant. Her family put her to death in a traditional “honor killing,” then came after the alleged boyfriend until the Palestinian police stopped them.

Occasional disputes with Muslim neighbors are insignificant compared with the effects of the Israeli occupation. Taybeh has been blocked off for days by army roadblocks. The 20-minute journey to Jerusalem — where many villagers work — is often lengthy and sometimes impossible. Israel ‘s new security barrier threatens to cut off Taybeh from Jerusalem

“We are Arabs, we are Palestinians, we are Christians at the same time,” he said. “We are people of this land. We are here since 2,000 years ago. We are not persecuted, we are not weak. We are very strong, and we will stay here forever.”