The Holy Land's most endangered flockEveryone celebrates Easter in the West Bank village of Taybeh, but the population is falling in this last outpost of Christianity
By Andrew Mills
TAYBEH, West Bank --- Father Raed Abusahlia seems indignant as he speeds his black Volkswagen down the hilly road at the edge of the village.
"They live in Guatemala," says the Roman Catholic priest, pointing to a large white house surrounded by olive trees.
"And them, they've moved to Australia.
"And that one there, up on the hill, they live in Las Vegas" -- he slams on the brakes -- "Las Vegas!"
Deep in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the Palestinian village of Taybeh exists as a final hilltop outpost of sorts. With no mosques and three churches, it is the only all-Christian village left in the Holy Land.
But in the decades of violence, occupation and economic hardship, thousands have fled for better lives abroad and just 1,300 villagers remain.
The energetic Abusahlia, 42, who resembles a talkative version of the Mr. Bean comic character, has made it his mission to convince the remaining Christians to stay put.
"It's only the strong, courageous people like me who stay here. It's the weak and fearful people who leave," he says. "And later, when we have freedom, I will tell the people who left, who didn't participate actively in the liberation, to stay away."
On Sundays, bells ring out over the rocky Judean wilderness as the village's Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic congregations celebrate mass in their separate churches using their separate liturgies.
But after mass on Easter Sunday, villagers of all three denominations share the same Christian Palestinian customs that have been practised here for eons: handing out red-coloured eggs to represent the blood of Jesus, eating sugar cookies baked in the shape of Christ's thorny crown and sitting down to a big family meal of mansaff, slow-roasted lamb served with yogurt and rice.
Through a strict tradition of only selling land to other Christians, Taybeh has remained a purely Christian village in a part of the West Bank best known for sprawling Jewish settlements and packed Muslim towns.
In fact 7,000 former residents who now live overseas own two-thirds of the land in Taybeh and, for now at least, they're holding the line against selling to non-Christians.
The Christians who remain here believe they have a special connection to Taybeh because 2,000 years ago, when it was known as Ephraim, Jesus is said to have taken refuge in the village during the weeks leading to the crucifixion.
"In Taybeh, we were evangelized by Jesus Christ himself," says Abusahlia, now sipping thick Arabic coffee in his cluttered office at Christ the Redeemer church.
"We are the successors of His apostles. And so, when people tell me they are preparing to move abroad, I make this theoretical argument: `You are here because God wanted you to be here. It's not by chance. Your mission is very clear: to witness Jesus Christ in His homeland.'"
It doesn't look as though Abusahlia's argument is working: 62 people left Taybeh last year, according to church records.
And despite small-scale economic opportunities the churches have created here, residents continue to leave.
Even Abusahlia admits that asking villagers to stay on is a hard sell; it means choosing occupation over freedom.
Villagers joke that if Jesus and his apostles had being going forth from Taybeh on that final journey to Jerusalem, they never would have made it because they'd all have been detained at the Israeli checkpoint on the edge of town for not having the proper travel permits.
Though Jerusalem lies just 25 kilometres to the southwest, it is a world away from Taybeh, on the other side of several army checkpoints and the eight-metre-high concrete separation barrier, which Israel says it is building to protect its citizens from Palestinian attacks, including suicide bombings.
"Jesus Christ was mighty," says Father David Khoury, pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox church here.
"He could have cleared all the checkpoints in His way by saying a word. But people like us, we're powerless. We can't resist the gun. We can't resist the bulldozer. We can't resist the checkpoint."
Villagers are allowed to cross the separation barrier only if they hold special travel permits, a constant reminder of the occupation, which Palestinian Christians blame for the social and economic hardships that have been forcing their people to emigrate overseas.
Before Israel became a state in 1948, Christians made up 7.3 per cent of the population of the Holy Land.
Now, at fewer than 160,000 people -- 110,000 in Israel and just 50,000 in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza -- Christians account for only 1.7 per cent of the population, according to a survey conducted for Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian grassroots group in Jerusalem.
To be sure, Palestinian Muslims are also leaving Israel and the territories, but it seems the Christian flock is the most vulnerable to being erased from the lands of the Bible.
The Christian population is shrinking twice as fast as it is growing; for every Christian born in the Holy Land, two move abroad.
After last year's elections, when Hamas took control of the Palestinian Authority from the formerly entrenched Fatah party, many Christians feared the hard-line Islamists would make little room for them, especially since most Christians support making peace with Israel.
But those fears haven't come true in Taybeh or elsewhere in the territories.
"With the coming of Hamas, the fact that we have been able to continue living as before is an indication that Hamas respects the traditions of mutual openness and tolerance between religions," says Bernard Sabella, a Fatah party member of the Palestinian legislature and a Palestinian Christian. "We should give them credit for that."
Says Abusahlia: "Hamas has dealt with us Christians better than anybody else because it is in their favour to show the world that they are not fanatics.
"But the world did not give them the chance to govern."
He's referring to the international political and financial boycott of much of the Palestinian Authority that has brought a new round of economic woes in the last several months.
"We are desperate now because everything has changed with this boycott. Everything is getting worse," says Khoury, whose 26-year-old son Firas has been without work for nine months and has applied to immigrate to the United States.
"There's no future here for people like him."
But will there be a future for the only Christian village in the Holy Land?
"Our dignity does not come from our numbers. It comes from our presence," says Abusahlia, sounding a bit offended by the question.
"We are an integral part of this country and this people. We have been for 2,000 years and we will remain here forever."
(From the Toronto Star