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70 Years Later: Palestinians Are Still Denied the Easter Promise of Hope

Today is Jumaa’ al Hazeeneh (Arabic for Good Friday), a phrase pregnant with nuances that commemorate the Passion of Christ. Sorrowful, grief-stricken, distressing, troubling, excruciatingly painful, agonizing, harrowing, laborious are just a few of these connotations.

For Christian Palestinians, traditionally Jumaa’ al Hazeeneh is a day of prayer, fasting, solemnity, and introspection.

No, I am not imagining a one-week late Rip Van Winkle Easter Jumaa’ al Hazeeneh commemoration. Rather, blame Pope Gregory XIII for replacing, in 1582, the Julian calendar (instituted in 46 BC by Julius Caesar) with the Gregorian calendar. While the Eastern Orthodox Christian rites (Antiochian, Syriac, Greek, Russian, Armenian) adhere to celebrating Christmas and Easter using the Julian calendar (usually one to three weeks later than their western counterparts – depending on the lunar calendar), the western rites, including all the hybrid Protestant offspring, adopted the Gregorian Calendar.

While reminiscing about my childhood days under Israeli occupation between 1948 and April 9, 1959, the day my family was forced to leave our ancestral Jerusalem and Palestine, I was prompted to google Mar Semaa’n and feast my eyes on the few images of both the interior and exterior of a church that served as a bastion of peace and serenity, a kind of embryonic cordon in which I relived both the happy and frightful uncertainties of living under a brutally harsh occupation. The first image is of a recent celebration officiated by Jerusalem Patriarch Theophilos and attended by Archimandrite Joachim Helenoupolis. The photo is in the nave, directly in front of the Royal Entrance, and the large candelabras are the same candelabras which my three brothers and I would light and extinguish at appointed times. The second image (left) is that of the church’s exterior, and, like most Orthodox churches, the exterior is rather drab looking while the interior is an abundantly rich visual tapestry. The symbolism is overt, spirituality emanates from an interior font. And the last image (right) is of the sanctuary, highlighting the High Altar, the same altar on which my brothers and I would set and remove the larger than the life-sized holy manuscript. In my younger days this was a joint effort undertaken by my late twin brother and me.

***

Sometime in early 1946 my twin brother and I were baptized in the large baptismal font that graced the Nave of the Katamon Mar Semaa’n Roum Orthodox Kneesé (Arabic for St. Simeon Eastern Orthodox Church). Derived from Greek κατὰ τῷ μοναστηρίῳ (i.e. “by the monastery”), in the early 1900’s Katamon became one of the most popular suburbs of Jerusalem. Inhabited primarily by Christian Palestinians and small pockets of Muslims, Greeks, other Arab nationals, a tiny cluster of Jewish residents, foreign ligations, including the damned Colonial British High Command officials, Katamon’s inhabitants comprised a bourgeoning population of Jerusalem’s professional elites.

In 1859 the Greek Orthodox Patriarchy acquired the site on which Mar Semaa’n was built and, incorporating ruins that date back to ancient times, they built a new church in 1881, including a residence for the Patriarch. Ancient cave inscriptions on the grounds are believed to mark the tomb of Simeon (cited in Luke’s Gospel as the person who, upon holding the infant Christ in his arms, recognized Him as the promised Messiah), thus prompting the Greek Orthodox Church officials to ascribe a geographical and biblical nomenclature that is still in use today.

And thus it was that from the mid 1920’s until March 1948 my entire family, including aunts, uncles, and plenteous cousins, regularly attended services at “St. Symeon of Katamonas.” Weddings, funerals, holy feasts and baptismal ceremonies were held in the-by-now too small space to accommodate a multiplying primarily Palestinian congregation that had outgrown the 19th-century space. Because of textual references to Simeon’s having held and recognized the infant Christ’s prophesied birth, baptismal services held a special significance for the congregants, especially the young parents and their children.

Orthodox baptisms, like all Orthodox feast celebrations, are performed with ritualistic fanfare and pageantry. The liturgy, sung in Arabic, Greek, and Syriac, is stunningly melodic and uplifting (there’s nothing like the thrice modulated Kyrie Eleison at different octaves); incense permeates the air; priestly vestments in the most colorful, richly embroidered damask, brocade, and silk were worn by the clergy and altar boys; and a setting rich in dazzling iconography depicting myriad New Testament scenes in an array of mosaics, oil, and egg tempera paintings graced every wall. In short, the iconographic visual, auditory, and olfactory senses were teased with centuries-old traditions. Only yesterday former colleague/artist Donnie Copeland commented that my early Orthodox Church experiences were “in a current Byzantine mode.”

After having been thrice dipped in the baptismal font, the (often screaming) baptized infants are deposited into the Godmothers’ towelled arms. I am told that after my twin brother and I were baptized, my father threw silver coins on the marble floors within easy reach of the many youngsters attending the baptismal service.

Orthodox churches have a unique architectural design based on a cruciform floor plan with a central dome. The choir and the cantors frequently occupy front areas on the far sides of the nave, and the sanctuary, the most sacred area of the church, is reserved for the clergy and altar boys. The Holy Altar (Holy Table) is located in the sanctuary; it is the most important element of an Orthodox Church. It is the structure on which the priest blesses the Eucharist before it is attended to the faithful in a communal goblet richly engraved and chased with gold filigree that is accentuated by an array of precious stones. The Holy text, in the form of a large, antiquated illuminated manuscript, is also the reposing location for the precious manuscript when it is not in use.

Separating the sanctuary (hence the clergy while they conduct the rituals) from the nave is the Iconostasion, a wall with three entrances. The Iconostasion includes a panel of icons which grace these three entrances. Flanking the central entrance, better known as the Royal Door, the lateral entrances (Deacon Doors) are reserved for the attending priests and altar boys. An embroidered curtain or ornately painted doors usually conceal the Altar when services are not being celebrated. On the right-hand side of the Iconostasion one will always see the icons (large egg tempera or oil paintings) of Christ and St. John the Baptist. On the left-hand side are always the icons of the Theotokos (Mother of our Lord) and the patron saint or event to which the church is dedicated.

***

What would have otherwise remained a peaceful and harmonious Jerusalem and Palestine began with legal and illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine. The violence perpetrated by newly arrived Jewish underground terrorist organizations met muted responses by a mostly fellaheen (farmer) Palestinian citizenry. As they have done in all their colonies, the Brits were an arrogant and racist lot. Their moral abdication and their 1917 Balfour Declaration doomed Palestinians to a life of deprivation and statelessness.

The first major cataclysmic dagger thrust into Palestinian civil society was the July 6, 1946 attack on Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. Executed by the Irgun Jewish terrorist-led mastermind Menahem Begin (he would live to brag about it and lecture the world on morality), 91 people died when bombs, smuggled into the hotel in milk canisters, demolished several stories. This would become Palestine’s 9/11.

One-and-half years later and to the day, another Jewish terrorist organization (the Hagana) bombed the Posh Katamon-located Semiramis Hotel, a historic Palestinian landmark frequented by intellectuals and foreign dignitaries, and the setting for Palestinian cultural activities. To maximize the casualties, on January 6, 1948, a hand grenade was thrown into the lobby so as to draw a maximum number of occupants to the bomb’s location. Soon thereafter, a large explosion demolished over 50% of the structure, killing 26 civilians, including Allende Solares, the Spanish Vice Consul to Palestine. And ever since, the Israelis have been using the same tactics to maximize Palestinian casualties; Are these not cowardly crimes against humanity?

While the bombing of the Semiramis Hotel rattled all Palestinians, including Katamon area Palestinian residents, it was the April 9, 1948 genocide of Palestinians at the village of Deir Yassin that was the coup de gras that wiped Palestine off the map; well over 150 civilians were butchered (some raped, several disemboweled, and many corpses thrown into a cistern). Orphaned children were loaded on a truck and callously dumped in a Jerusalem Alley, while some 30 adults were loaded onto truck beds, stripped naked, and driven through Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods to be harangued, tormented, humiliated, and made to disappear. For more information the reader is urged to read Ilan Pappé’s monumental The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Dubbed a self-hating, Anti-Semitic Jew, Pappé has been vilified by Zionists and their supporters.

Soon after the Deir Yassin massacre, bands of Israeli terrorists drove through neighborhoods across urban and rural Palestine threatening and verbally terrorizing a population living in morbid fear for their lives. Jeeps, mounted with loud-speakers, sped through densely populated Palestinian neighborhoods urging Palestinians to: Remember what happened in Deir Yassin, flee if you want to save yourselves lest the same fate befall you, a tactic recently utilized by the repugnant ISIL and Al Qaeda. And, of course, the resulting mass hysteria resulted in the flight of over 700,000 Palestinians living in exile across the world.

This Monday, April 9, 2018, is Palestinians’ Day of Infamy, one of numerous such days. And sadly, the Israelis are still at it, killing Palestinians for sport as witnessed by the very recent shooting of 18 unarmed Gazans protesting occupation on their side of the prison wall imposed by the Israelis and their Egyptian underlings.

***

Just recently I sent the following missive to a dear friend and former colleague: Wishing you and C. a Happy Easter. This feast always brings back wonderful memories of my childhood days in Jerusalem — even though going to church was an arduous task. Having to walk through Jewish neighborhoods, having rocks thrown at us, and hearing the epithets – often led and orchestrated under parental supervision — Goyim Goyim (Gentile, Gentile) and Aravi Melouhlah (parasitic Arab) – were never pleasant. However, once inside St. Simeon’s Church in the Katamon Jerusalem neighborhood, and upon donning my intricately embroidered brocade altar boy tunic, peaceful serenity took over. The interior placidity was, and will forever be remembered, as a vast universe of placidity. So as to avoid similar taunting, we always chose a different route for the return trip home. This is what you call a bitter/sweet experience. And God’s chosen are still at it.”

***

Finally, to the Israeli fascists and their ardent Zionist supporters around the world, you will never be free until you grant Palestinians their freedom; you will never be legitimate until you give legitimacy to Palestinian statehood; you will never claim a moral ground until you atone for your 70 years of sins of ethnic cleansing and occupation. And, please don’t tell me “Never Again.”

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Raouf J. Halaby has just recently been awarded a Professor Emeritus status. He taught English and art for 42 years. He is a writer, a sculptor, a photographer, and an avid gardener. He can be reached at rrhalaby@suddenlink.net

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