The winding road gradually opens up to the highest hills in the West Bank, slowly revealing an unusual skyline: a handful of white houses, amidst bell towers and no minarets. Taybeh is the only entirely Christian village in Palestine, some thirty kilometres from Jerusalem, along the road towards Ramallah, the ancient city of Ephraim mentioned in the Gospels, where Jesus withdrew before going to Jerusalem to live his Passion. It is currently inhabited by 1,300 Christians of Catholic, Melkite and Orthodox rite, surrounded by Muslim villages. However, the Christian inhabitants of Taybeh claim they feel neither besieged nor similar to an Indian reserve. On the contrary! Still today, the Christians of Taybeh continue carrying out their mission, perhaps because of the fact that in 1889 and in 1898 Blessed Charles de Foucauld dwelt in the village during his travels to the Holy Land with the intention of being a “universal brother” of every person he met.
Without fears. “We are first Palestinians and then Christians”, was the straightforward remark of the parish priest Johnny Abu Khalil. “Being Christian Palestinians is a veritable mission that we shouldn’t be afraid to carry out”.
Living in an entirely Christian village is something special. It carries a great responsibility also towards the neighbouring Muslim villages, namely, to be light and instruments of peace”.
Moreover, strong attachment to this land did not prevent the emigration of many of its inhabitants, especially over the past ten years. The difficulties caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the network of Israeli check-points, the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, have led young people to seek a stable future elsewhere. In order to give concrete answers to the lack of future prospects of its youths, Taybeh has set up schools, two Houses of Hospitality for pilgrims along with small factories for the manufacturing of olive oil, ceramics and beer, that turned it into a world famous destination. “The permanence of Christians in the Holy Land also passes through these paths.
It’s important to listen to the youths, to families – the parish priest pointed out – to listen to their expectations and their hopes. They want a stable future, the opportunity to study, get married, have a home, a job, and dignity. To grow in the faith.
I spend a lot of time in the school of the Patriarchate, where among the majority of Christian students there are also Muslims from nearby villages. It’s a beautiful, consolidated relationship. These youths call me ‘abuna’ (father), they ask for advice, they converse. This is very important for Muslim-Christian relations, whose history of coexistence is century-old. It’s very important”. A housing project envisaging 45 apartments for young Christian couples has been launched in conjunction with the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. “Having a house of your own is an encouragement to get married, to enlarge it with a family with children, thus enlarging also the community. We are few, and we must be the salt of Palestinian society”.
A Christian brewer amidst the Muslims. Father Abu Khalil shares this commitment with his parishioners, that include the Khoury family, which in 1995 opened in Taybeh the only beer factory in the Palestinian Territories. For this purpose, members of his family returned from the United States after the signing of the Oslo Treaty, when the winds of peace seemed to blow strong. “But peace has never arrived – said Nadim Khoury, founder of the initiative and former mayor of the village – . However, 16 people and four members of my family continue working in the factory, that produces 6000 hectolitres of beer per year”. Italian machinery, German hops and Israeli bottles for a small miracle that every year brings together thousands of people for a veritable “Oktober Fest” in a Palestinian setting. But this activity also aims to be a sign of “peaceful resistance” against the occupiers of the Palestinian territory. Job creation is the preferred option, instead of arms and violence, to give a future to young people who hopefully will thus decide not to emigrate and will remain here. “This is our land. Our human and spiritual roots are here”, underlined Khoury, who decided to invest the proceeds of the sale of beer in activities such as winemaking. It’s but another miracle, in a village at the centre of a territory with a Muslim majority population, whose religious tenets prohibit alcoholic consumption. Another non-violent initiative, that dates back to 2004, involved the artisan production of peace lanterns in the shape of doves, sold worldwide with the purpose of encouraging prayer for peace and solidarity towards the Holy Land. Thanks to ceramics workshops, some twenty artisans manage to provide a dignified life to their families.
The key to peace. The thoughts of Fr Abu Khalil do not stop in Taybeh. On clear days from Taybeh’s hilltops can be seen the peak of Mount Nebo, in nearby Jordan, where hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq have sought refuge as a result of the acts of violence carried out by the Islamic State against minority groups, including Christians.
“We must not remain silent before the persecution of Christians”,
said the parish priest. “There will never be peace until a Palestinian State will be created side by side to the State of Israel. In fact, the key to world peace is in the Holy Land”.