Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January-February 2008, pages 50-51

Christianity and the Middle East

“We Need Justice,” Says Father Yousef Sa’adah, a Melkite Priest in Nablus

By Joel Carillet

  • Father Yousef Sa’adah of St. John’s Melkite Church in Nablus (Photo Joel Carillet).

AT SUNSET A bone-chilling cold descended on Nablus, even inside the home of Father Yousef Sa’adah, the 67-year-old priest of St. John’s Melkite Church. For an hour the priest had been describing the difficulties faced by the city’s Christian community. His words, like the cold, made comfort impossible.

Among the examples he cited: “One family had no meat for their children for one month. Some cannot pay for electricity or rent. Some cannot afford medical care, and so they die.”

The longer Father Yousef spoke, the more he looked exhausted, almost shell-shocked. It was as if relating these events made them real all over again, and it was a weight the aging priest could hardly bear.

The story that most visibly disturbed him, however, concerned an eight-year-old girl and her mother. At 10 o’clock one morning, Father Yousef recalled, a woman appeared at his office. In tears, she told him that as her daughter was getting ready for school that morning she had asked, “Mother, what is the meaning of life?” Quickly offering her own answer to the rhetorical question, the daughter matter-of-factly stated, “It is better to be dead than alive.”

And then she left for school.

Nablus—wracked by massive unemployment, ringed by notorious IDF checkpoints, the target of regular Israeli raids and home to an escalating law-and-order problem—is no easy place to raise a child. And now, sitting before the priest, the desperate mother begged for help. What could she do for her daughter?

“When your daughter returns from school at 2 p.m.,” the priest told her, “kiss her, hug her, and give her something sweet to eat and drink.”

“Our children cannot dress as well as the children in Jordan, England, or America,” Father Yousef explained, reflecting on the story he had just shared. “We have no nice places to go—a park, a zoo—like what we see on television. And at night we often cannot sleep because of soldiers, turning tanks, shooting, dead neighbors.”

Like the cold, a sense of powerlessness clung to the living room as Father Yousef poured another cup of tea. On the walls hung a large cross-stitch of the Last Supper, a poster of Mary and an infant Jesus, and a sign that read, “God Bless our Home.”

These things did not seem out of place. But on the television screen, tuned to the Christian satellite station Noursat, a Maronite children’s choir at a church in Beirut was belting out songs. This created a sense of dissonance.

The scene in Beirut—of vibrant singing, fashionable clothes, a packed sanctuary—was beautiful. But it also brought home all that the Christian community in Nablus is missing, all that it has lost. In 1967, an estimated 3,500 Christians called Nablus home; today that number has dropped to 650.

“Now I’ve finished my life,” said Father Yousef. “I speak for my people, not for myself. We need justice. Without justice, how can we live?”

Father Yousef didn’t say much about himself at all, until asked. Born in Haifa in 1940, he referred to his early childhood as “a good situation, I remember the sea.” All that changed in 1948, when his family, like so many other Palestinians, fled the new state of Israel. For the next four years the family lived in a cave in Rafidiya, on the edge of Nablus, then spent another four years in a refugee camp. “We received one pair of trousers per year from the U.N.,” Father Yousef recalled. “When that one pair was being washed, I stayed inside.”

Nor is the sense of insecurity and humiliation the priest experienced as a child merely a thing of the past. Placing six IDs on the coffee table, Father Yousef explained that, even with all these, he cannot always pass through the military checkpoints encircling Nablus. An Israeli soldier manning the Huwara checkpoint once asked him, “What are you?”

“I’m a priest.”

“What is meaning of this?” the soldier demanded.

“It is for Christians.”

“What is a Christian?” the soldier continued. “Are you Hamas?”

The soldier then threw the IDs into the dirt—Father Yousef illustrated this by tossing an ID across the living room—and walked away. Getting up to retrieve the ID he had just thrown, which had landed by the television (still airing the Beirut choir), Father Yousef said, “I have a pain in my right leg, a bad disc in my back, high blood pressure—even waiting in line at Huwara is difficult. And then to be treated this way!”

As he returned to the couch, Father Yousef’s eyes seemed to look beyond the present, as if searching for some specific point in history where things had gone so terribly wrong. “Jews can come from Russia and, okay, you can live in Haifa,” he finally said. “But today I cannot even leave Nablus?”

The more Father Yousef spoke, the more this reporter felt he was visiting a people living in a crucible. Rather than being the kind that molds you, however, this crucible was more the sort which, in the end, will quite possibly utterly break you. The priest told how his 34-year-old daughter Rita, who works as a nurse at a local hospital, hadn’t been paid in eight months. He described how he had once been shot at when he stepped out his front door during curfew, and how the streets are too unsafe at night even for people to attend midnight Christmas Mass. He told of having had a travel ban placed on him from 1980 to 1992, which kept him from leaving Palestine, and never once being told the reason. And he described the seven times he has left the West Bank since 1992 (four times to Europe, three times to the Arab world) as coming up for desperately needed fresh air.

He also said, “I have faith in no one now—not in the U.N., U.S., Europe, or, I’m sorry to say, my Pope.”

Not all Palestinian Christians are as pessimistic as Father Yousef. Nadim Khoury, founder of the Taybeh Brewing Company, pointed out in a separate interview near Ramallah that not many countries are left occupied today, and that the occupation of Palestine cannot last forever. When told of Khoury’s optimistic outlook, a doubtful Father Yousef replied diplomatically, “This is one perspective.”

Asked his thoughts on Christians in the United States, Father Yousef said that many seem to walk with just one eye open, seeing only Israel. He encouraged Christians everywhere to read the Bible and to “walk in the light.”

“Peace is not made in a factory or with violence,” he said, “but with justice. We need only justice and peace. There will be no peace without justice, you see.” 

Joel Carillet, a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee, worked for the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel in 2003. His short stories and photo essays can be viewed at <http://jcarillet.gather.com>.

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