Northeast of Ramallah, surrounded by smouldering hills of the Judean desert, lies a Christian oasis: the town of Taybeh, more well-known as the birthplace of the one and only Palestinian beer, is more importantly the one and only village comprised entirely of Christians. While Nazareth is 80% Christian, Bethlehem 60%, Taybeh stands at 100%. Currently, out of the 1,300 residents, approximately only 800 are actively employed. The brewery that once employed over 20 full-time employees has been reduced to 4. It’s the same story throughout the West Bank. The first lady of the town, Maria Khoury, a Greek-American educator and writer who married the Palestinian now mayor of the village, tells me that because of the checkpoints and road blocks, what once was a twelve minute ride to Ramallah on a smooth asphalt road has now become an hour-long trek through sinuous suspension-devastating back roads. We stop at one of the few public eating establishments on a hill overlooking the village, but the door is closed. Business is so poor, Khoury explains, that local people can’t afford to eat out so the restaurant is open by appointment only. Since the 2000 popular uprising or Intifada, few pilgrims make their way through these parts of the Holy Land, and the once thriving community is now starving.
Taybeh prides itself on its Christian steadfastness. Taybeh is better known as the Biblical Ephraim, the place where Jesus stayed before he started the Passion. whereThree churches in the village, the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, and the Melkanite are named after St. George. Apparently, the image of St. George slaying the dragon over the apse of a church door served as a deterrent to the hordes of fanatical Islamic Persians who would plunder and destroy anything with the sign of the cross on it. However, as St. George was revered in the Middle East as a glorious Arabian warrior, the Persians and later the Ottomans let any structure bearing his emblem alone. A Byzantine church dating from the 4th century, attributed as with everything to St. Helen, lies in ruins, but is still open for a wandering pilgrim to light a candle and is still used by the local people as a sacrificial altar. Following the Old Testament tradition, should someone’s prayer come true, say to be granted a baby boy, a lamb is slaughtered at the church and its meat distributed to the poor as a gesture of almsgiving and to glorify God.
Maria Khoury, who met her husband Dawoud (David in English) while they were both students at Hellenic College in Boston, testifies to the hardships one must endure just to live in a small mountain village surrounded by a Muslim majority. Maria gave up the comforts and conveniences of an affluent American lifestyle so that her husband could keep his right of return and to fulfill a lifelong dream of opening a small business in his ancestral village, thereby helping to boost the local economy. “I went from cosmopolitan Boston to this,” Maria recounts, “I was in culture shock for the first 25 years.” While many other families left the village, tired of the continual shellings, the depressed economy, the roadblocks, Maria, her husband, and three children stayed. “As an Orthodox Christian,” she explains, “I feel I have to bear witness to the Holy Land. If we all leave, the churches will be empty. We will have given up our right stand up for our faith.” The tactics of the Israeli government such as checkpoints, the building of the “security wall,” identification cards and segregation of Palestinians into their own territories, “are a way of strangulating us enough,” Khoury explains, “to make our lives miserable every day so that we would like to get out. As Christians we feel we have a place here. There should be a Christian presence. It would be such a shame to have so many churches and to have them be empty.
The changes in the Palestinian Authority to the Hamas majority make Khoury apprehensive about the future of this Christian village. Taybeh will test the proclaimed democracy of the PA. Judging from an incident that occured on September 3, 2005; Taybeh will prove a challenge. What started as a personal disagreement between a Christian from the village and a Muslim from a bordering one escalated into a full-scale riot. A mob of 300 fundamentalist Muslims surrounded the beer factory, (alcohol consumption is forbidden under Islamic law) and threatened to destroy it. The mob managed to burn 14 houses in its wake. Another incident involved a love tryst between a Muslim girl and a Christian boy. The girl, who was apparently found bearing an illegitimate child, was stoned to death. The dishonored family of the unfortunate girl attacked the village, accosted the alleged young man, and burned his house and the 12 houses belonging to his extended family. For the most part, relations with Muslim neighbors are peaceable, but personal disputes mushroom into full-scale tribal and religious wars. What starts off as a personal disagreement becomes a heated battle between Muslims and Christians because of the village’s nature. Christians comprise less than 2% of the current 3.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, and so are a minority within a minority. As Maria explains, “We are a cushion between the Muslim and Jews because as we believe in the teachings of Christ who taught you shall love your enemy and not blow him up.”
The villagers have taken great care to preserve the uniquely Christian character of their village, an effort that stretches way back 2,000 years ago to the first century AD. “Palestinians,” Maria maintains, “did not need to be converted. They were already Christians to begin with. They were the first ancestral Christians living in the Holy Land.” This fact Maria took great pains to explain to her zealously Greek Orthodox family who insisted that she marry a Greek Orthodox husband. “Congratulations, they would tell me,” Maria explains, “David became Orthodox, but I would tell them he was always Orthodox.” To a large part Maria’s mission in life is education. Besides holding a doctorate in education, she has spent the majority of her life educating Americans and Greek-American Orthodox in particular of the unique struggles of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land. Having published over 200 artilces on the issues related to Palestine, she has combated the prevailing stereotype that all Palestinians are terrorists. “Palestinians are not terrorists,” she explains, “but have been terrorized themselves and so when they have reacted in such a way they have been viewed as terrorists. People don’t understand what makes people blow themselves up–to be born in a refugee camp for three generations, to have no job, to have witnessed fathers and brothers shot indiscriminately, all the terrible conditions the Palestinian people face . . .” Many Americans forget that among the Palestinian Muslims are many devout Orthodox Christians who are suffering for their faith. She brings up the story of her father-in-law who in 1948 lost his job in Jaffa and came back to Taybeh his ancestral village as the parish priest. He hung a white flag over his house and the church and surrendered to the Occupation. He and other people in the West Bank still hold keys to the houses they lived in back in 1948 which now are occupied by Israeli families. “One person’s happiness to creating homeland carries total devastation to another’s,” she says.
Khoury is also the author of a series of books for young children: Christina Visits the Holy Land, Christina Takes the Sacraments, Christina Visits a Monastery. The proceeds of the sales of these books and her appearances at coast-to-coast speaking tours go to raising funds for the improvement of the village. So far, her appeal to maintain the Christian presence in the Holy Land, matched by a matching grant by the Virginia Ferra Foundation, has raised $97,000 which has realized her father-in-law’s lifelong dream: to build houses for needy village families on the large plot of land belonging to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. After he received permission from Partriarch Diodoros to build on the land, the ground broke in 1996-97 for the building of what would have been ideally 30 homes. Now due to the exorbitant building costs, only 12 homes can realistically be built. The impetus for the Taybeh Christian Housing Project was to staunch the exodus of Christian families from the village and so maintain the town’s Christian character while at the same time provide jobs for the locals.
More information about Maria Khoury, Taybeh, and Palestinian Christians can be found by logging onto www.saintgeorgetaybeh.org. Those interested in making a donation to the Taybeh Christian Housing Project can make out checks payable to: The Metropolis of Boston: Holy Land Housing, Metropolis of Boston, 162 Goddard Avenue, Brookline, MA 02445.