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Christmas in Lebanon When They Bombed the Virgin Mary's Hometown

Christmas in Lebanon

by ANNIE C. HIGGINS

Safuriya, Lebanon

Just outside of Tripoli in northern Lebanon is Nahr al-Barid Refugee Camp. This was the first refugee camp established for Palestinians in Lebanon, and is still home to these people of great patience and hope, living in exile for fifty-five years. It was a cherished fulfillment for me to return to Nahr al-Barid recently, a place I had visited briefly during this season two years ago.

I brought with me photographs I had taken then; one was of Mr. Salim Abu-Ghunaym, who had told us of his family’s flight from Safuriya in 1948 when he was a boy. I met his niece first and when she took the photo to her uncle, his wife knew immediately who had taken it: "It was the one who spoke Egyptian dialect!" I remembered how he had excused himself at one point when his remembrances overtook him with emotion. But he returned to us, fresh and smiling and saying, "Praise God/Alhamdulillah." He did not waste time on complaints or blame.

I also remembered learning something new and disturbing. His village, Safuriya, was the first place that the Jewish commandos bombed from airplanes. [This was before the state of Israel was declared, hence they were not yet Israelis.] Safuriya is also the hometown of the mother of the Virgin Mary, and has an ancient monastery/dayr dedicated to her, Dayr Hannah. So they aerially attacked the remembrance of Jesus’ grandmother first.

On this visit, I learned new village facts which rang bells from Bible reading. Salim, or Abu Bahaa’ as he is called, was excited to remember old scenes, and became insistent on naming places accurately. When he could not recall a name, he had his niece run next door to ask her mother. While he was painting the orchards in our imaginations, we were pitched into darkness as happens many times each day in the electricity-starved camps. He illuminated a spot in the dark with a tiny red light from a key-chain lantern/fannous. Then within seconds, the battery-powered spare lights kicked in. I was charmed by the little lantern, so he gave it to me with typical Arab generosity.

Later in Beirut, a young friend was fascinated by the little lantern/fannous. With his three-year-old curiosity, Georgio figured out how to twist the switch on. He couldn’t get enough of that tiny bright red light. He even found it inside the zippered pocket of my tote bag. Clearly he had earned the light!

But here in Nahr al-Barid, Abu Bahaa’ continued to piece together a picture including the Christian Armenian community who had settled there after the War, and then fled as did everyone else when they heard the Jews were coming. He winced at the memory of the sheep’s unforgettable shrieks as they were being fired on. Surely this terror was not the legacy of the Good Shepherd who had trod these regions. But the thing that surprised me was hearing of the two different Bethlehems. He remembered the olive orchards of Bethlehem Ephrata in this northern region near Nazareth.

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.

Micah 5:2.

The Bethlehem of his childhood, Abu Bahaa’ explained, was different from the Bethlehem near Jerusalem where Joseph the Carpenter and the Virgin Mary went for the birth of Jesus.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.

Luke 2:4.

Two thousand years later, all who take Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ, both Christians and Muslims, were driven from the village of Jesus’ mother’s mother. They thought it would be for a few weeks, until the attacks stopped. Five decades later left them still exiled from their beloved homeland. They had departed in haste, some barefoot, and fled all the way to Nahr al-Barid on foot, a journey which takes about three hours by automobile on modern roads. Consider the Virgin Mary, running barefoot in Safuriya, where a footprint reputed to be hers, is preserved in stone.

Part of my purpose in the refugee camps is to preserve, though not in stone, the voices of local poets. One young poet, a university student, paid special attention when I mentioned Balata Refugee Camp near Nablus, a city famed for preservation of its ancient habitations, most of which have been decimated by the Israeli army in the past few years. A pocket of original Jews still reside in peace and safety in Nablus, as they have throughout the waves of conversions to Christianity and Islam. Nablus, the city known for its ancient architecture and today’s pastries and olive oil soap: the young poet wondered if I had had heard of anyone there with his family name. His father and aunt fled Palestine in 1948 and despite continued attempts at communication over five decades, they have never been able to find a trace of the family they left behind.

Those who take Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ, including Muslims and Christians, are not allowed to return to their homeland, which is Jesus’ homeland. The Messiah, or Christ, is universal. So is the love of homeland. So is treating humans like humans.

My hope is that my fellow-religionists and especially my fellow-citizens will learn that Muslims also honor Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ, the son of the Virgin Mary, and that they revere the record of his healing the sick and feeding the multitude as attested in the Bible and in the Quran; and my twin hope is that my fellow-religionists will remember that Jews express the spirit of compassion and justice that Jesus taught and practiced.

With righteousness shall he [the Lord] judge the world, and the people with equity.

Psalm 98:9

In Cana [Qana] of Galilee, Jesus turned the water into wine millennia ago.

In Cana [Qana] of Galilee, airborne Israeli bombs snuffed the lives from refugees sheltering in a UN compound in 1996. Robert Fisk mentions an "extraordinary" remark a survivor made to a visiting American, whom the survivor did not realize was Jewish:

"You must not blame all Jews. Some Jews are good and they have told the truth about what happened to us. There are Jews in America who try to help us and do not support what the Israelis do to us."

Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation, 2002, page 685.

This remark is inspirational, but not extraordinary. I hear this natural embrace of humanity every day from Arabs, the majority of whom are Muslims. I hear this positive acceptance of Jews repeatedly and sincerely from Palestinians living in exile.

If Muslims can say this of Jews, cannot we, and I speak especially to my dear fellow Christians of Western extraction, likewise open our hearts to a realistic and humane view of our fellow human beings? Cannot we make the effort to question the fear-generating propaganda being repeated like the big lie that it is, and welcome the opportunity to find space in our hearts, minds and conversations for a true picture of our neighbors?

"Who is my neighbor?"

Jesus answered this in a parable featuring the now-famous Good Samaritan. Mankind is our neighbor. Please remember this, and pass it on.

Poor wealthy King Herod was fearful that an infant would take his crown. His fears led him to butcher babes. But his suspicions were irrelevant: the "king" he felt was a rival had a spiritual mission, not a political one. My hope is that my fellow-citizens will put aside fears of Muslims and Jews and dehumanized humans, and stop supporting policies that slay the blameless. Fears become policies that slaughter innocents just as in Herod’s time. We must evolve beyond Herod. We must let in a little light, and stop believing lies about entire sectors of the world’s population.

Like young Georgio with the lantern, let us seek out that light and love it, even if it is just a little bit of brightness.

ANNIE C. HIGGINS specializes in Arabic and Islamic studies, and is currently doing research in Jenin, Occupied Palestine.