Voices from the Holy Land

A "European" parish in Nablus

Saint Justin of Nablus, Christian martyr and Church father, author of famous works, such as the First and Second Christian Apologies, is among the earliest authors of Christian thought. Indeed, the Latin Catholic parish church of the Palestinian city, some 60km north of Jerusalem is dedicated to the Saint. The community consists of some 300 faithful while the total number of Christians – including Orthodox and Melchites – is less than 700. A meager minority if compared to a population of over 300 thousand Moslem faithful. However, this ecclesial community is marked by a strong sense of belonging and identity. Also thanks to the dynamism of the parish priest, father Johnny Abu Khalil, Palestinian from Jerusalem, whose past includes experience in a French fashion maison and who today serves as priest in the Latin Patriarchate clergy. “We’re very respected in this city, we never had serious problems, and our relations with our Muslim brothers are very good”, he told SIR Europe correspondent Daniele Rocchi, while planning the reception of a delegation of EU and US bishops of the Holy Land Co-ordination, in Jerusalem until January 14 to convey their vicinity and support to local Christians. An example to be followed. A crowd of people led by scouts in high uniform with bass drums and bagpipes stood before the entrance of the parish centre looking forward to the delegation’s arrival. “This is our way of expressing our joy to have as guests those people from whom we received ongoing spiritual and material support”. Indeed, the parish of Saint Justin can be described as a significant model of cooperation and mutual support with European parishes. “First of all – said father Khalil – during my studies in the seminary I was ‘adopted’ by the parish of Camnago, in the diocese of Como, which enabled me to enter priesthood. This tie is still ongoing today, since my election as parish priest. The congregation of Como conveys ongoing support: they are arranging the ornaments of the pastoral centre and are organizing pilgrimages from Saint Justin in Nablus. The encounter and the friendly relations that ensue with the local faithful represent a thrust for permanence in the Holy Land”. In the parish there also is a kindergarten funded by German and Swiss faithful who join forces also to meet the needs of the Patriarchate’s school attended by 600 pupils, of which only 60 are Christian. An extended hand. What’s most interesting is the initiative of the English church of Saint Cecilia in Liverpool, served by father Mark Madden. “In 2005, to celebrate the centenary of the parish – said the English priest – we decided to undertake a twinning with a town in the Holy Land, and the then Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, suggested that of Saint Justin in Nablus”. “After a difficult start, we undertook a trip in friendship, sharing and hope”, he said holding an olive-wood statue of Jesus and the Samaritan at Jacob’s well – located in Nablus – and a scouts pennant in his hands. If it were possible to summarize the friendship of the two parishes of Liverpool and Nablus in three objects these would undoubtedly be “the tabernacle, the scout uniforms and the bagpipes. We gave the tabernacle to the congregation to convey the message that we’re close and united in our prayers, and that they will never be alone. The scouts uniform represents the importance of the youth in the future of local and non-local Christians. Indeed, the scouts group in Nablus is also formed by Muslims and this is bears special significance. Three bagpipes indicate the exchange of cultures and we’re happy that young people play this instrument. It’s not a question of donating several thousand dollars per year to the parish in Nablus. Rather, we must be present where they don’t succeed and extend our hands to them. This was the purpose of the recent trip to Liverpool of three parishioners of father Khalil. They wished to meet us in person and report on the life of their church. Friendship and mutual support wipes away the idea of charity, that we reject. The twinning and the pilgrimage can act as useful tools to tear down the walls and the distances”, said father Madden. Also CCEE secretary general father Duarte da Cunha was impressed: “I saw a beautiful parish, an active and cooperative congregation that I would describe as normal, if this description helps dismiss the alleged picture of poor, abandoned local Christian faithful, victims of a dramatic situation. Instead, I saw people with a strong faith, identity and sense of belonging to the universal Church”.

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