For Mgr Sabbah, Patriarch al-Rahi's presence in the Holy Land will boost Arab Christian identity
by Fady Noun
The Latin Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem backs the Maronite Patriarch's decision to welcome personally Pope Francis. The Maronites in the Holy Land are a minority that refuses to turn inward.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - Mgr Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem, has come out in favour of Maronite Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi's decision to welcome in person Pope Francis during his trip to the Holy Land (24-26 May). Notwithstanding the pastoral aspect of the trip, the visit will confirm that in Israel, Christians in general and Maronites in particular, are rooted in their Arab identity, he said.

Interviewed in Haifa (northern Israel) by a correspondent of the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI), Patriarch Sabbah said that Patriarch al-Rahi's pastoral visit "will strengthen the Arab identity of the Maronites in the Holy Land", countering a major shift away from it.

A university researcher, Rima Farah, has in fact studied their feelings of alienation. In a recent article published in the Levantine Review (Winter 2013), she looked at the "Identity  and  culture  of  Israeli  Christians  in  the  face  of  Islamic resurgence;  cultural  distinctiveness  of  a  minority  within  a  minority".

The paper examines how Israeli Christians perceive their cultural position between Jewish and Muslim identities in Israel as it relates to cultural differences between Christians and Muslims, and to the relations between them in mixed villages and towns in the Galilee, especially following plans to build a Mosque in front of the Church of Annunciation in Nazareth.

The evidence suggests a growing gap between Christians and Muslims as the Muslim aspect of the identity of Arab Muslims rose in parts of the Arab community since the 1970s.

At the same time, Patriarch Sabbah noted that the State of Israel has accentuated the gap by favouring the enrolment of Arab Christians in the Israeli Defence Forces, from which Muslims are exempt. This has favoured the idea that Christians are not Arab.

The Maronites in Israel

There are some 10,000 Maronites in Israel, sources from the Maronite Patriarchate said.

Concentrated in the Galilee, especially in Haifa, they are divided between the Archdiocese of Haifa and the Holy Land of the Maronites, which was created on 8 June 1996, and the Patriarchal Vicariate of Jerusalem, Palestine and Jordan, according to the pre-1967 border. Both vicariate and archdiocese are held by Mgr Moussa al-Hage.

According to the same source, the Maronite Church has a church and a convent in Jerusalem, and a church in Bethlehem. In Jerusalem, the Vicariate buildings have been renovated with the addition of an extra storey.

In Amman, the first stop (24 May) in Pope Francis' trip, the Maronite Church has worked to bring together the faithful. With this in mind, it is building a church dedicated to Saint Charbel (Sharbel) on land provided by King Abdullah.

Since the creation of the Episcopal See of Haifa and the Holy Land, and the arrival of the current bishop, the Maronite Church in Jesus' homeland has experienced a virtual renaissance according to an article published by the Maronite Research Institute (MARI) in Washington, authored by Fr Louis Wehbe, from the Monastery of Latrun in the Holy Land (for more information,

The article notes that a sense of belonging was boosted as the situation was clarified. For Patriarchal Vicar General Boutros el-Sayah, the first bishop of Haifa and the Holy Land, other Eastern Churches in Israel are also drawing strength from the visit.

Christians in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour are now asking that Patriarch al-Rahi celebrate Mass in their churches, he said.

Mgr Sayah and ecumenism

As he talked about the role played by Bishop el-Sayah of Haifa and the Holy Land, Father Wehbe expressed his happiness that the bishop and his priests were able "to bring the Maronite community along with all the other Churches of the Holy Land."

"In view of this, their contribution to the synod of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, in February 2000, was significant," Fr Wehbe explained.

"Although they are aware of the spiritual and cultural specificity of their Church, Maronite leaders in the Holy Land have avoided turning inward and adopting a ghetto mind-set. It must be said that the bishop's ecumenical experience played an important role. However, we must also admit that the future of Maronite Church in the Holy Land remains fragile."

"Its future depends essentially on the fate of other Christians. Everything is closely linked to a very unstable regional context where the Christian presence must combine rootedness and mobility. Sometimes, it must display its power to resist. In other occasions, it must be flexible and adaptable so that it can be protected against the dangers of political and economic unrest, like those stemming from a certain resurgence of fundamentalist currents."