Thursday, 19 January 2012

Orthodox Christmas

By 6th January people are usually putting away their Christmas decorations, but here the season is slightly lengthened, as the Orthodox celebrate Christmas almost a fortnight later (and the Armenians later still!). I was privileged to attend the Christmas celebrations in Sakhnin this year, firstly at a choir concert, when Bishop Theophilus of Acre conducted the Sakhnin choir in what was very like a ‘9 Lessons and Carols’- but in Byzantine chant. It was wonderful, and even the children’s choir sang a few pieces. On the Saturday (7th January) I attended the Christmas Day service, which in many ways reminded me of services in Zambia, with people coming in and out and wandering up to the front in groups to have a blessing from the priest, who was enormously patient about it all. There must have been a good few hundred people there, of all ages and all dressed in their best. Usually the women in the Arab communities dress very conservatively, but the younger generation here is certainly moving away from that! I somehow get the impression of a well-educated and reasonably prosperous community. It was held in the new church, a massive structure, but which the families themselves are building – and it is heartening to see how well it is progressing.

After the service, families gather for their Christmas dinner, thus breaking their 40 day fast (no meat) with chicken. I was invited to one of the homes, where Abu Hanna, the patriarch, has 10 sons and 1 daughter, all of whom were there with their own families, so very busy, but extraordinarily welcoming.

In the Greek Orthodox church (and even at the concert), the men and women sit separately, though interestingly the choir itself is mixed. Interesting, especially since there has been a lot in the news just now about female soldiers singing at army functions and provoking a walk-out by the more religious male soldiers. Israel has tended to be a very secular state with women reaching the highest offices (indeed, the leaders of two of the main political parties are women). However, there have been a number of issues recently which seems to undermine this. In the more religious parts of Jerusalem, streets were segregated during religious holidays, shops vandalised for not having a separate entrance for women; while certain buses have also been segregated with women having to sit at the back. A female soldier who refused to do so was verbally abused and had to leave the bus. Even adverts on buses or shelters featuring women have apparently been removed, in case they are vandalised. This all came to a head recently in Beit Shemesh, a town in between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where a 9 year old girl had to run the gauntlet of ultra-orthodox Jews, who want schools there segregated and who regarded her clothing as provocative (ironically the girl is from a religious family, and her clothing would probably be regarded as acceptable by most!). This has led to rallies by both the more secular, who are afraid of freedoms being eroded, and by the ultra orthodox, who have grown in number and want their voice to be heard.

Moderator’s Visit

After 5 weeks in Scotland on furlough, I returned to Tiberias in early December. As always, it was good to be in Scotland, but equally good to return. I feel very much at home in Tiberias, especially now that I have moved into Yakfie. One reason for my slightly shortened furlough was to get back and prepare for the Moderator’s visit. David Arnott had been my ‘bishop’ during my probationary year in Netherlee, so it was good to be with him and Rosemary again. They had a busy time, including visiting Gaza and culminating their visit by spending Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, but it was also good to welcome them to Galilee. On the Sunday morning we worshipped in the Anglican church in Haifa, which was incredibly welcoming. It was also good to see here and also at the House of Grace, so many food parcels ready to deliver to those in need in the community. In the evening, just before preaching at the service in Tiberias, David dedicated the Peace garden at St. Andrew’s in Tiberias. The water was running in the fountain, as we gathered round the Peace pole, lighting candles to show our commitment to peace and reconciliation.

Olive Grove
During the afternoon of that Sunday (we seemed to pack in so much!), we had had an audience with Archbishop Chacour of the Melkite church, before visiting our partners at the House of Grace and Sinyanna. However, before we rushed back to Tiberias for the service, we made our way to the countryside on the southern side of Nazareth, where we are working with Sindyanna to plant an olive grove. The Moderator dedicated the Grove and unveiled a plaque in memory of Nesreen Abdo, who had worked so faithfully in the Hotel. It was lovely that her parents and family were able to attend. Trees will be planted there for members of staff at the Hotel on their birthday, for example, and hopefully it will be a place where the Hotel staff or the children from Tabeetha School can come on an outing.

Jane Haining
On the way to Jerusalem to meet up with the Moderator and his party, I found myself stopped in the Jordan Valley waiting for a whirlwind to pass. It was like something out of the ‘Wizard of Oz’, but fortunately I wasn’t whisked over the rainbow and could make my way to Yad Vashem, a museum complex which commemorates the Holocaust and where David would lay a wreath. It must be almost 30 years since I was last there, and I found it a deeply moving experience. The new museum is very impressive, but somehow it was walking round the gardens afterwards which I felt humbling, looking at names under the trees or at a railway carriage, in which people would have been transported to a concentration camp. I also spent time searching out the Garden of the Righteous, to look for the name of Jane Haining, the Church of Scotland missionary from Budapest, who had died in one of the camps along with her pupils. It was good to see it.