Arab Christians: Faith and Culture

Sometimes lost in Christianity’s central role in the rich histories of Europe and the Americas is the fact that the very first Christians were simple villagers scattered around modern-day Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. These men and women were the first to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the first to walk with him, to see him crucified and resurrected. Today, the descendants of those first Christians live in the same villages as their ancestors, practicing the same Christian faith. They are Arab Christians, the “Living Stones” of the Holy Land. For centuries, Arab Christians have preserved the holy sites sacred to all Christianity and cultivated a vibrant life of prayer in the Holy Land. Increasingly, though, Arab Christian communities are struggling, and many of the Living Stones are emigrating in search of more prosperous lives and stability.
The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF) is a nonprofit organization founded by a group of Christians from America and the Holy Land. HCEF’s primary goal is to preserve the Arab Christian presence in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan by addressing the many needs of those Christian communities – education, employment, housing, and others. In addition to these very practical concerns, HCEF also seeks to meet the spiritual needs of Christians in the Holy Land and in the West by fostering solidarity between the two, increasing awareness and enriching the lives of each. It is our belief that the stability of Christianity’s global presence is dependent upon its millennia-old foundations in the lived faith of contemporary Arab Christians. We seek to replace despair with hope, fear with security, and humiliation with human dignity.

A New Partnership – A Shared Purpose

The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation is proud to announce a new partnership with Washington DC’s Pope John Paul II Cultural Center (JPIICC). The Cultural Center is a place to learn about the challenges facing the Catholic faith and to share that faith with others. The Holy Land Arab Christians: Faith and Culture exhibit sponsored by HCEF does both. Many artifacts from Pope John Paul II’s own visit to the Holy Land are on display. While on his pilgrimage, the Pope visited a great many of Christianity’s holy sites, including Mount Nebo in Jordan, the Grotto of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City. Along the way, John Paul II was a living witness of Catholicism’s core values of peace, unity, and love.

The exhibit also calls to mind the many challenges faced by the Christians in the Holy Land, including the region’s substantial Catholic population. It is sponsored in part by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (the Roman Catholic Archdiocese for Israel, Palestine, and Jordan) and with the blessings of the Patriarch, His Beatitude Michel Sabbah. Inasmuch as the Pope’s visit filled the Holy Land’s Christians with a great deal of hope, the hardships they endure continue to this day. Despite the continuing efforts of the Patriarchate, the future of the Church in Christianity’s birthplace cannot be guaranteed without the awareness and involvement of the faithful in the West.

The Exhibit
Many artifacts, cultural items, and symbols of Christian heritage are on display in the second-floor gallery of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center. Among the many beautiful works in the Holy Land Arab Christians: Faith and Culture are:

1. Pope John Paul II’s chair: On display courtesy of the Latin Patriarchate, this is the chair used by John Paul II during his March 2000 pilgrimage to the Holy Land. From this seat, the Pope received the tens of thousands of Arab Christians from all denominations. John Paul II offered his blessings on the people and the place, encouraging them. While in Bethlehem, the Pope offered his consolation, saying, “Do not be afraid to preserve your Christian presence and heritage in the very place where the Savior was born.”

2. John Paul II’s Visit to the Holy Land: To commemorate John Paul II’s visit, the Latin Patriarchate published this full color book, detailing in pictures and words everything that the Pope saw and did. This book was published by the Patriarchate and was available in four languages: Arabic, English, French, and Spanish.

3. Mosaics: A proud tradition in Madaba, Jordan for over a millennium, mosaic art continues to represent the region today. There are several beautiful mosaics in the Faith and Culture exhibit depicting scenes from the Holy Land. Artisans have rendered two of the most important sites in the Christian tradition: the view of the Promised Land from the top of Mt. Nebo, and Jesus’ Baptismal Site at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan. There is also a detailed reproduction of the oldest surviving map of the Holy Land: a mosaic in the floor of a church dating back to the sixth century.

 4. A Nativity Set: This set includes 12 quarter-sized figures, handmade out of olive wood. The first olive trees were planted in Palestine 6,000 years ago. In the 12th Century, local Christians took up the art of carving olive wood figures for sale to pilgrims. The craft has endured to this day, being passed on from generation to generation as the primary means of support for thousands of Christian families. In recent years, violence in the Holy Land has threatened the future of this centuries-old tradition. Some olive groves have been destroyed; still others are put out of reach by security barriers and checkpoints. Sadder still, the sharp fall in the number of pilgrims have led many young Christians to abandon the craft, giving up on olivewood carvings as a viable means to support their families. HCEF’s Holy Land Gifts program works with workshops in Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour to market their wares in the United States. This program has provided vital support for more than 800 Christian families in the Bethlehem area.

 5. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Similar to the Nativity Set, this scale model of Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre is also hand carved olive wood. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is revered by Christians as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The site was originally excavated and the first church built by Saint Helen, Emperor Constantine’s mother, in the 4th Century. Today, the Holy Sepulchre is held in joint custody by six major Christian denominations – including the Roman Catholic Church – making the building itself truly ecumenical. Even before St. Helen’s arrival, the site was a popular pilgrimage destination. To this day, thousands come from around the world to pray at this holy site, especially at Easter. Unfortunately, access for local Christians who live outside of Jerusalem is restricted to those who manage to get the proper permits. In the spring of 2005, for example, HCEF sponsored a “Journey to Jerusalem,” bringing almost 1,000 children to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the first time.

6. The Church of the Nativity: This model features a scale rendering of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. Also dating back to the 4th Century, the Church of the Nativity was first built following 325’s Council of Nicea, the very first Christian council of bishops. The Church marks, of course, the site of Jesus’ birth. Even to this day, Mass is celebrated there every Sunday, making it one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. Recently, HCEF has adopted a tradition of sponsoring a march for peace in January, bringing together children from around Palestine with HCEF’s own pilgrims.

 7. The Star of Bethlehem: TMatthew’s Gospel reports the Visit of the Magi from the east, describing their arrival in Bethlehem this way:

They set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that
the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. (Matthew 2:9-10)

From that moment, the star became synonymous with Bethlehem, the symbol of the city to this day. When John Paul II arrived in Bethlehem on his own pilgrimage, he was presented with an ornament like this one, featuring the image of the Holy Family and made from mother-of-pearl. In the language of Christian symbolism, the Star of Bethlehem means more than just the star that led the Magi and shepherds to Jesus’ birth. It is there to lead all of us to salvation.

 8. Olivewood Crafts:  Over the course of many centuries, the olive wood craft designs have multiplied exponentially. Every October, the people of the Holy Land pick the fruit of the olive trees and prune the branches. These pruned branches dry for several years and then are turned into beautiful testaments of faith. Most draw on Christian stories from the bible or the lives of the saints for inspiration – including the Annunciation, the Flight to Egypt, and the Last Supper on display.
The craft has remained popular amongst pilgrims in large part on account of the skill of the craftsmen. Particular attention should be paid to the figures’ faces. In some cases, the attention to detail a these carvings require can lead an artist to spend an entire day on just one face. Olive wood, mother-of-pearl, and other traditional crafts are available online at

 9. Mother-of-Pearls Crafts: The mother-of-pearl craft was first introduced to Palestine between the 14th and 16th Centuries when Franciscan Friars from Damascus together with Genoese artisans began training the local population in the art. Similar to the history of olive wood carvings in the region, Palestinian artisans have passed this craft on from one generation to the next ever since. Today everything from crosses, to frames, to decorative boxes, to garnish for furnishings, and more are made by hand out of mother-of-pearl. The abalone shells used in this craft are imported from Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and Brazil. The shells are then designed, cut and glued together in Palestine. The designs – including those for the Last Supper, Crucifixion, and Resurrection on display here – have gone almost unchanged in the 500 years since the first workshops opened.

10. Embroideries: Palestinian and Jordanian embroidery is beginning to experience a revival after a lengthy period of decline beginning in 1948. Traditionally practiced by Palestinian and Jordanian women in the villages and countryside, the stitching style, fabrics, patterns and colors are all designed to communicate specific information about the wearer or owner. According to these indicators, traditionally, the dress a woman wore suggested a specific marital status, region, or village of origin.

 11. Pictures from Bethlehem (framed): The pictures on the walls are all scenes from Bethlehem and all feature local Christian women in the traditional embroidered dress. One features a view of the cityscape. Another features the Church of the Nativity as seen from Manger Square. The third shows the women praying inside the Church at the subterranean grotto which marks the spot of Jesus’ birth. The last picture shows the women picking olives, a staple of the Palestinian diet.

12. A Bust of Pope John Paul II: As a special tribute to the Pope and exclusively for this exhibit, one of HCEF’s workshop partners sculpted this unique bust of John Paul II. Working only from pictures of the Pope, the artist was able to produce an astounding likeness and detail. It is an example both of the skill of the artisans as well as their enduring faith.