Christians in the Holy Land
Ancient Faith Radio · March 18, 2008
Our guest is Dr. Maria Khoury who talks about the plight of Christians living in the Holy Land. She is the author of books for both adults and children including Witness to the Holy Land and the Christina series.
John Maddex: We’re chatting today with Dr. Maria Khoury. She lives in Palestine. She’s here in the United States for a little while but she is from the West Bank of the Jordan River in the biblical land of Judea and Samaria. She has authored many articles dealing with the Christian presence in the Holy Land and the Palestinian struggle for independence and freedom including her new book Witness in the Holy Land, a reflection of life in the occupied territories since the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in September of 2000. Welcome to Ancient Faith Radio, Maria.
Dr. Maria Khoury: Thank you so much, John, thank you for having me.
JM: When was the last time you were in the Holy Land?
MK: I have just come here from my small village of Taybeh in January to do a book tour also with the children’s book that I have, Coloring with Christina, the opposite from Witness in the Holy Land to show the beauty that exists with the foundation of our Christian faith and the mother church in Jerusalem. So I have been here since January and, God willing, plan to go back in mid-March.
JM: Gives us a glimpse of the Christians in the Holy Land. We hear, of course a lot about the struggles and the political ramifications, but when you’re just thinking of people who name the name of Christ, who claim to be Christians, what is the breakdown there?
MK: Well for us, for the 4 million Palestinians that live in the West Bank and Gaza, less than 2% are Christians. Since 1948 with the establishment of Israel we see more and more Palestinians leaving the occupied territories because they are just being squeezed out by the high unemployment, the wars, the checkpoints, just the awful oppressive policies which are really squeezing our Christian community the most because we’re such few Christians.
JM: Of the Christians, how many of them would be Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant?
MK: Throughout the years, actually John, the majority of Christians in the Holy Land have always been Orthodox, but what is happening is that with the very terrible conditions, the rest of the denominations are coming in and really meeting people’s social needs. We have a lot of people who converted and pray with the Protestant faith, pray with the Catholic faith only because they get, for example, jobs and free education and housing and so when people give you a job or education and housing and they say: “Wouldn’t it be lovely to see you in church on Sunday”, the result is our Orthodox churches throughout the years are emptying out. We are not doing as much as an Orthodox community to meet the needs of people to help them with their day to day struggles.
JM: Describe those struggles. I know the hardship for Christians in the Holy Land is far greater than many people realize. Could you give us a glimpse of what is happening there?
MK: Well, for example, we just don’t have any basic freedoms. It’s just so profound to be in such a spiritual place where you might be 10 minutes away from the Life-Giving Tomb of Christ where Jesus was crucified and resurrected, but if you are a Palestinian Christian you’re not permitted to freely go and worship there or venerate or light the vigil lamps and it’s quite sad. People come from all over the world and they can access Jerusalem, but it’s this double standard that if you live as a Palestinian in the occupied Palestinian territories you need a permit to get into Jerusalem. Our worst suffering is just the lack of basic movement, and now with the wall that has gone up closing in all of the different Palestinian territories it’s just worse than ever because basically we are in an open area prison.
These policies are policies that are placed from the occupying forces for all Palestinians whether they are Palestinian Muslims, Palestinian Christians, Christians that are Orthodox, Protestant or Catholic. Anyone who has a Palestinian ID does not have basic freedom of movement and must obtain a permit to basically do anything: to go to work in Jerusalem you need a permit, to go to the hospital in Jerusalem you need a permit and to pray you need a permit.
JM: Well, we’re certainly not going to be able to solve all of these very complicated problems here but we do want to concentrate of the plight of the Christians, what their needs are and what is being done to try to meet those needs.
MK: Right, I think currently the most important thing is hoping that people everywhere can pray for peace and stability because it’s something that all faiths can use in Jerusalem. It’s such a sacred land for all yet has seen so much bloodshed. As Christian people we always try to be peacemakers and promote reconciliation, promote forgiveness and this is a big difference in how we treat each other.
We believe in peaceful resistance to this awful oppression that we encounter. Our Christian community in such a very violent location is so critical more than ever because it really is representing Christ’s peace, Christ’s love and a witness for the commandments that Christ taught us.
JM: I understand, Maria, that you are particularly involved in a housing ministry yourself, is that right?
MK: Yes, Christians need some basic needs met such as jobs, housing and education and so some of the programs that I work with in particular try to help our small Christian community of Taybeh, the small little village that I live in, where my husband was born. We try to maintain the small population.
One of the projects is the Taybeh Orthodox Church housing project, aimed at helping people build their first home if they don’t have a home and if they don’t own land. The project aim is trying to help others that are not as blessed as I am. I have my own home there and other people, it’s not like the US where you can get a mortgage or you can borrow money. If you don’t have $50,000 up front, you cannot build a home and that’s the current price of a home there in our village because we build with stone and this is how much it costs to build a house in the village.
JM: We’re talking with Dr. Maria Khoury. She is a resident of the Holy Land, in particular Maria you are in a village called Taybeh. Describe where that is geographically.
MK: Yes, Taybeh. You will not find Taybeh on any map because our biblical name is the village of Ephraim. It’s the place where Christ came right before His crucifixion He escaped to Ephraim, before He had the glorious entry into Jerusalem (John 11:54). Our name from Ephraim was changed in the 12th century by the Islamic leader Salahadin.
The Christian community was so generous in feeding his horses and his soldiers and he made a statement that “they are taybeen” which means in Arabic good, generous and since that time we took on the modern name Taybeh. We are north of Jerusalem, half an hour right outside of Jerusalem would get you into Taybeh. We are in the highest mountain region of Palestine. It’s very beautiful because at night we see the lights of Jerusalem and in the daytime from a certain point you can see the sparkle on the Dead Sea. It is also just 10 minutes up from the Mount of Temptation where Christ said no to Satan.
Over on the other side I can actually see at night the lights of Aman, Jordan, so right down below me is where St. Mary of Egypt spent more than 40 years of her life asking for forgiveness from the Lord. It’s such a beautiful location and it’s the only 100% Christian village that now survives there in the West Bank where in the rest of the villages the people have basically moved out to Australia or to America or to Britain, looking for a better life, looking for jobs because we suffer from this terrible oppression and occupation since 1967 when Israel took over those territories as well.
JM: Maria, we hear stories here in the United States of bombings and terrorist attacks. You wonder how safe it is to be there. Do you consider where you live to be a safe area?
MK: Our village is quite small. We’re less than 2000 people. We are all peaceful people so the Israeli army does not invade our area as much as it invades Gaza or Nablus so we don’t have invasions from the Israeli army because we don’t resist in a violent way the Israeli occupation. We are trying to find peaceful ways to resist through writings, through speaking and through prayers. We feel that we are peaceful people and we are accepting and trying to resist with our presence, actually, and with just being there and trying to survive.
JM: One way you have chosen to speak to the needs there is through your writing and we had mentioned a couple of your books, but let’s talk a little bit about your children’s books. What is it you hope to accomplish with these?
MK: Since the early ‘90s I have always been trying to promote Orthodox values and traditions through the Christina character that was first developed in the book Christina Goes to Church. My love is to try to help children come closer to God and I developed the Christian character of Christina as a way to teach children about our faith.
I thought since I’ve been living in Palestine since the early ‘90s since after the Oslo agreement, where we thought it would be more peaceful (in Taybeh), why don’t I use this character to walk the footsteps of Jesus and to take children through a virtual pilgrimage of what it’s like to walk the path that the Lord walked.
I was hoping to plant a little seed in children’s minds that the Holy Land is a place where we should pray for peace and stability and a place where we should think about visiting since the Life-Giving Tomb of Christ is the most precious and sacred place. If you are a Christian person this is the most sacred place you could ever visit on earth and venerate where our Lord was resurrected. So with Christina Goes to the Holy Land I was hoping to plant this seed in children’s minds with that. Then I noticed the text was quite much in this colorful book.
This year right fresh off the press I brought to the United States the coloring book, Coloring with Christina, in which the child can color Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Actually both of my children’s books have a message at the end: because the little girl Christina does come to the only Christian village that is left, Taybeh, she can go back to her school and to her church with a message that Christians need help to stay in the Holy Land. Part of the help that we need is for communities here not to forget about us and to express the ultimate solidarity by visiting and walking the footsteps of Christ themselves.
This is what boosts our economy because most of the Christian people work with serving food to people at the hotel or driving them to the holy sites or selling them their olivewood souvenirs. So I’m hoping that with children it will erase the fear of not wanting to come there because of the violence because many adults say yes we’re scared we hear about bombings, we hear about violence. Yet when you come on an international passport, an American passport, you have the freedom to move around and most of the holy sites are guarded and protected by both the Israeli army and Palestinian policemen. We hope it will continue to be safe for people at least to visit the precious and sacred holy sites.
JM: Well if you are a listener to Readings from under the Grapevine you’ve heard Dr. Chrissi Hart read Christina goes to the Holy Land. People may want to know how to get this book. Maria, where can people purchase both your children’s books and your other material?
MK: The Witness in the Holy Land book is available from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese from the Religious Education Department. It is also available from the Holy Cross Bookstore. Both of those are located at 50 Goddard Avenue in Brookline, MA. They have 800 numbers and websites. St. Nectarios Press in Seattle also promotes the Holy Land books that are printed in Jerusalem. Conciliar Press also has some of the Christina books as well. So those are the main distributors for Christina books here in the United States.
JM: We would encourage our listeners to look for these, not only the children’s books but some good information for us adults as well to learn more about the plight of the Christians in the Holy Land and give us some good material to be able to more intelligently pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who reside in the Holy Land. Well we want to thank Dr. Maria Khoury for joining us today. Any final words, Maria that you would like our listeners to know?
MK: John, I just wanted to say also the aim of my book Witness in the Holy Land is for people when they read it to also understand that here in the United States what a beautiful country this is and basic things that people have here like a home, a job, a beautiful community to pray in not to take these things for granted because it is these very basic things that we suffer from living in the Holy Land under military occupation.
So in a way I was hoping that my book could allow people to give glory to God for the beautiful things that are offered on this side of the world. Although we live on the opposite side of the wall and we are psychologically and physically suffering in a terrible way we wanted people to enjoy the blessings that they have and to always give glory to God when they live in freedom.
JM: Well put and another good reason to be looking for these books. You can search through Holy Cross bookstore, Conciliar Press, St. Nectarios Press and we will also have a link for you on our Ancient Faith Radio website. Our guest has been Dr. Maria Khoury from the Palestinian community of Taybeh. We want to thank very much Maria for joining us. We will look forward to catching up with you the next time you are in the States. Would that be alright?
MK: Thank you so much John. I hope to continue to have God’s blessings and return and share the beauty that exists in the Holy land with the Miracle of the Holy Fire that continues to happen there which shows that Christ is in our midst.
JM: He is and ever shall be. Thanks, Maria.
Dr. Khoury lives on the West Bank. She has authored many articles dealing with the Christian presence in the Holy Land and the Palestinian struggle for independence and freedom. The following is more information on the church in Taybeh, the Taybeh housing project and Dr. Khoury’s writings: