There are just three all-Christian villages left in the Holy Land. Apart from Taybeh (population 2,000) in the West Bank famed for its beer, in upper Galilee there are Fassuta (population 3,300) and Mi’ilya (population 3,000). Both are picturesque, prosperous, built on Crusader sites and within seven miles of the Lebanese border. Eager to explore one of these rare outposts, I spent the weekend on top of Mi’ilya’s highest hill in an ancient stone farmhouse adjoining the church next to the ruins of a castle which once belonged to the Crusader King Baldwin III.
When ascending the steep road which snakes its way up to the church it was impossible not to notice a giant white neon cross on the hill, and then a smaller red one on top of the church – testament to how the Catholic Church is a marker of identity to this village.
Another marker is the local Catholic secondary school, which year after year wins prizes for excellence. This is not unexpected. Recent figures show that Arab Christian secondary school students have the highest success rate in matriculation exams in Israel – significantly better than those of the Jews, Muslims and Druze. Ten per cent more Christian Arabs qualified to enter universities in 2012 than those in Jewish education. One surprising statistic, though, is that Arab Christians have the lowest birthrate among the various categories of religion in Israel.
Over lunch in a local restaurant, the parish priest of Mi’ilya, Fr Nadeem Shakour, emphasised the importance of people, not places. “We want Christians from abroad who come to Galilee to stay in our homes in Mi’ilya. Instead of just holy places, we want them to get to know the local Christians. They just have to email me at [email protected] and I will help organise it. The people of Mi’ilya want to open up their homes. We are a people with just one religion, Melkite – Greek Catholic – and trace our history to first century Christians of Antioch. People here feel that it is our church.”
Fr Shakour then spoke of how the Melkites, with a total of 76,000 members in Galilee alone (not including Jerusalem), have maintained their position as the largest Christian denomination. Latin Catholics may have the grandest positions, churches, landholdings and control of the holy places, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity, but when one considers all the faithful who are described as the Holy Land’s “living stones”, they are a minority. At most, the Latin Catholics have 10,000 in their flock.
While attending Mass in the vaulted stone church it was interesting to see Adlin Shakour, the priest’s pretty wife, prompting one to remember that in the Holy Land the Catholic Church has far more married parish priests than celibate parish priests. Other differences and customs also stood out. Behind the altar there were more than 30 large icons and, surprisingly, also a statue of Mary at one side of the church. Usually Melkite churches, like Orthodox churches, only have icons. Yet another dissimilarity was seen when the congregation were making the Sign of the Cross: they use three fingers right to left instead of an open hand left to right. There was also greater use of incense and bells, opera-like rhythmic tonal chanting to make up for the lack of instrumental music and, instead of unleavened altar bread, specially baked thick, white leavened bread cut into rectangles that are later dipped into the chalice.
When I went outside the church and looked across the breathtaking panorama to the Golan Heights, the expanding Jewish development town of Ma’alot, its industrial park and a four-lane highway below was more than noticeable – a reminder of the threat of encroachments.