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We’re a living community here
Orange County Register
Ann Pepper

The Rev. James Babcock moved through his empty sanctuary just days before Christmas chanting prayers and spreading frankincense from the burner he gently swung as he walked.

“Father Jim,” as he’s known among his flock at Holy Cross Melkite-Greek Catholic Church in Placentia , said he wasn’t surprised by the absence of morning worshippers. He’s used to carrying out the daily “orthros,” or morning prayer, alone.

Besides, he was certain that the 300 families from such countries as Lebanon , Palestine and Jordan who make up his sprawling parish – which stretches from San Clemente to Whittier and Long Beach to Rancho Cucamonga – would soon pack the sanctuary and spill onto the patio for Great Vespers on Christmas Eve and at today’s Christmas celebrations.

“We’re a living community here,” Babcock said.

But it is one unfamiliar to most of its neighbors.

About three-quarters of the nation’s 3.5 million Arab Americans are Christian, according to the 20-year-old nonprofit Arab American Institute based in Washington , D.C.

Thirty-five percent are Catholic, including the Melkites, who follow the faith’s Eastern traditions.

The Eastern Rite ceremonies that the congregation takes part in for Christmas are typically longer, more demanding – the faithful stand throughout the nearly two-hour ceremonies – and more elaborate than at other Christian churches.

Something else is different here.

Perhaps more than at any other church in Orange County today, sadness will weigh upon the celebration.

Babcock’s parishioners say they are the direct descendants of the first Christians. Their ancestors dwelled in the Holy Land at the time believers say Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago for the birth of their savior – the reason for the Christmas celebration.

Today, however, only about 2 percent of the population there clings to the Christian faith. It is becoming a museum religion in the birthplace of Christianity, said Babcock, 58.

The dwindling numbers were a cause and a concern dear to the heart of Pope John Paul II.

Estimates of the number of Christians alive who lived in the Holy Land before Israel ‘s founding in 1948 vary from 18 percent to 28 percent.

But in the ensuing strife, Christians went with the rest of the refugees to camps in Jordan and Lebanon .

“Little by little as the strife in the region continued, they realized they had no future there. Many came here. Others went to Europe, South America , Australia . Now, few Christians remain in the Holy Land ,” Babcock said.

“This is the grief that we are facing for Christians in the Middle East .”

Elias Kashou, 59, a postal inspector and member of Holy Cross, said he came from Jerusalem where his family has lived “since forever.”

“We came here for better living and opportunity and freedom of religion,” Kashou said. “In the Middle East , the Christians have a hard time to live.

“This is really a shame. There are so few of us now that there are almost no local worshippers in Bethlehem where Christ was born or at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem . We feel that loss all the time.”

Raji Adousaada, 55, a Fullerton salesman who said his family has lived in Bethlehem since ancient times, added: “If there was peace I will go back and take my family. It is very important to me.

“My wife and I go from church to church every Sunday selling carved olive-wood religious articles that they make back there. We send them the money.

“But it is not enough to help. I cannot change the world myself. But we pray and hope all the time.”

Babcock said his Christmas prayer is for greater understanding among all people of faith.

“If we’d learn to respect one another, be tolerant of one another’s personal practices, we could find peace.”

He also constantly prays for the United States to rethink its positions in the Middle East .

While they wait, pray and hope, the members of Babcock’s flock have found a refuge at Holy Cross, which not only gives a place to congregate and socialize, but a place to practice their faith.

La Habra resident Nadia Bettendorf, 60, one of the church’s founders, said that until Holy Cross opened in 1973, she worshipped at a Roman Catholic church.

“But it is not my tradition,” said Bettendorf, a high school French teacher, who describes her family as living in Jaffa, a coastal city near Tel Aviv, for many generations.

The Christmas celebrations she plans to take part in at Holy Cross today are at the root of her faith, she said.

“This incarnation, Jesus becoming man to save us, to teach us to become more like God, this is really the essence of the Nativity. And our Christmas ceremony, as it moves from darkness into bright light, represents life in the faith, life in Jesus, and life as it should be lived.”

Babcock said that this Christmas his flock will pray that the love that God’s son brought today might spread throughout the hearts of the people of the land that Jesus walked.