It was the first day of the Jewish New Year with a very tight closure on Ramallah. More than seventy-five villages were shut off at 10 am from entering or exiting the Ramallah area. People at the checkpoint were frustrated, very angry and upset as they were stopped from passing. I had to wait until all the rocks were thrown, all the shooting stopped, all the gas bomb smells disappeared and then brave or stupid, I drove up to the Israeli soldier and begged to enter Ramallah.
It was the first day of the Jewish New Year with a very tight closure on Ramallah. More than eventy-five villages were shut off at 10 am from entering or exiting the Ramallah area. People at the checkpoint were frustrated, very angry and upset as they were stopped from passing. I had to wait until all the rocks were thrown, all the shooting stopped, all the gas bomb smells disappeared and then brave or stupid, I drove up to the Israeli soldier and begged to enter Ramallah. . Go back home, it is forbidden to pass,. he said. I told him I would love to have a holiday but my children were in school inside Ramallah because they left the house at 6:30 in the morning when it was not forbidden so I must pick them up. As he looked at my foreign passport he suggested it was too dangerous to live here maybe I should leave the country. This gave me the feeling it will take a long time to pass because I was facing concrete blocks in front of my car not just the soldier. Such concrete blocks have been blocking all entry points to Ramallah since last October. It. s a daily suffering that places all of us at the mercy of the Israelis. I turned off the car, got out and rested on the concrete block as the sun gave me an instant headache from the high heat. The view of nature is spectacular on this high hill full of olive trees that haven. t yet been destroyed by Jewish settlers. But the checkpoint is a nightmare and takes away your dignity. Admiring God. s beauty in the Holy Land, I felt the presence of God and told the soldier I can light a candle for him in church so that God can protect him and keep him safe if he would just call his commander to let me pass this checkpoint.
I must have been the strangest person he met that day. He made the phone call, brought the jeep over and pushed one concrete block so I could sneak my car by. I have waited hours so one more second to turn my head and thank him with relief was easy. Drenched with sweat in his bulletproof vest the Israeli soldier said: . Can you light that candle for me?. I grew up as a child lighting candles in Greece all the time. Candles represent Christ is the light of the world. Lighting candles for me is giving glory to God. Being true to my faith I went straight to the Ramallah Orthodox Church to fulfill my promise. I actually saw the parish priest Fr. Yacoub Khoury who was ordained two years ago. I began to ask him about the weeping icon of the Virgin Mary that exists here in the Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church of Ramallah. Although I have visited this church many times, only last year did I come to understand this is a miraculous icon from Fr. Yacoub. s explanations.
This icon of the Virgin Mary with the Christ child was hand painted in l992 by a local iconographer Mr. Gabriel Gaylmantian from the Bethlehem area. Many icons in the church were glassed up by lay people and framed in order to preserve and better protect them. On the morning of June 17, l998, Fr. Nicola Akal who teaches in the local Orthodox School went in the church to light candles as usual. The glass of the framed icon fell on the floor. The priest was a bit scared and left quickly to report the incident to Archimandrite Dr. Meletios Bassal, the superior at the Transfiguration convent right next to the church since l997. Both Fr. Nicola and Fr. Meletios thought the glass had possibly fallen from the strong wind blowing from an open window. But, right next to the icon, the vigil lamp was still lit from the previous day so this was an indication it could not have been the wind. Both priests were a bit nervous that the glass broke so they left the church for the local parish priest at that time Fr. Jeries Marzouka to see it.
Fr. Jeries who is originally from the Bethlehem area returned about five or six hour later to the church following a visit with relatives. He was asked to clean up the glass on the floor that had fallen from the frame of the icon but cut his hand while touching the glass. He screamed for help so Fr. Meletios came running inside the church and saw his hand bleeding. The archimandrite ran quickly to the convent to get a piece of cotton and alcohol to clean the blood. When he returned, Fr. Jeries. hand had stopped bleeding and the cut closed up. In an instant they noticed something unusual happened that the blood had fully disappeared from his hand. When they observed the icon more carefully they noticed the icon had many streaks of oil. The icon appeared to be in tears represented by oil. The shedding of oil tears continued as the oil was collected over the years to heal many people.
Fr. Meletios who also holds a doctor of psychology degree from the University of Athens has seen many miracles and thousands of people passing through the church to see the icon from all over the world. But after last September following the Palestinian Uprising not many have come. I asked him what did he first see when he looked at this icon. He replied, he saw the icon full of oil and Christ. s face was just a shinning light to him. . I don. t see Christ. s face when I look at the icon, I just see a shinning light,. Fr. Meletios explained to me. He means he did not see the details of the face like the eyes, the nose, the mouth, but instead saw a pure flashing light from Christ. s face. I asked him why did he initially get scared and leave the glass on the floor for Fr. Jeries to clean up: . I don. t know I just got scared& maybe I am not worthy to see a miracle and just inside my inner self I felt a disturbance,. he confessed.
From the many miracles, Fr. Meletios told me the story of a Greek woman with skin cancer who had come to the Haddasah hospital in Jerusalem to receive treatment in September l998. The doctors encouraged her to return to Greece because her cancer had far progressed and nothing could be done to help her condition because she was in a very late stage in her disease. Being a devote Orthodox Christian this woman went to the Holy Sepulchre to venerate the tomb of Christ and during the long wait she heard of the miraculous icon in Ramallah being talked about by two women who were in fact on their way to see the icon. She asked to go with them and venerate this miraculous icon. When she arrived to the Ramallah church and witnessed the icon crying and filled with oil she begged Fr. Meletios to be annointed by this oil. The nun in the convent helped the Greek woman anoint all of her body with the oil. One week later the same woman returned with two Jewish doctors from the Haddasah hospital claiming her cancer had completely disappeared and she had been cured. The Haddasah doctor mentioned to Fr. Meletios that Arab people have practical medicines for health conditions such as drinking herbal mountain tea for sore throats, etc, and the doctor wished to have some of what appeared to be a practical medicine from the icon. Fr. Meletios brought to his attention that it would not be possible to have the ointment because as a Jewish doctor he does not do his cross like most Christians would do before using the ointment. The doctor left the church unhappily and quickly.
I asked Fr. Meletios if there was one miracle that stands out in his mind from the last three years. He mentioned to me a Muslim woman who arrived at the church in June l998 with her husband after hearing the icon is a miraculous one. The Muslim woman could not see from one eye because her black pupil was larger than her other normal pupil. Fr. Meletios remained in the office while Fr. Nicola received this woman who said she believed in the Virgin Mary and her crucified son Christ and wanted oil to be put on her eye. Making this confession, Fr. Nicola had no choice but to let her venerate the icon and give her the oil. It took the woman about two minutes to exit the church and reach the front entrance where her husband was waiting at which time Fr. Meletios heard screaming and yelling . I see, I see..I am well,. the woman was shouting. The husband was very upset and did not believe this is a miracle but instead was angry about what type of magic the priest did. The woman answered her husband by saying that . whatever you want to believe, believe, the significant thing is that I can see and I am well.. Fr. Meletios thought this was an amazing miracle because it involved a Muslim woman.
The Transfiguration Church of Ramallah was build about 150 years ago. It currently serves about 7,000 local Greek Orthodox Christians all of who are of Palestinian descent. However, before the l967 war there were 38,000 Christians in the area. I asked Fr. Meletios what does he think about the future of the church and he said he is very worried that fifty years from now maybe there will not be any Orthodox Christians left in Ramallah. . I. m scared for the Church, our numbers are going down because of the propaganda people hear from America and from Canada. Basically, false dreams that you can get rich quick, live better and that all opportunities are available to you.. Thus, Fr. Meletios thinks it. s not just the occupation and the bad politics that force people to move away from this sacred land but the propaganda about a better life in the west.
I asked Fr. Meletios what does he think people in other parts of the world should know about Orthodox Christians in the Ramallah community and he said: . We are Palestinians, Greek (Byzantine) Orthodox and we live in a very religious level, we gather to pray and attend church but we have a very low theological level. Our roots are Christian from the time of Christ and we live and walk the footsteps of Christ but people in our community need to be more educated about the Orthodox faith.
Finally, I asked Archimandrite Dr. Meletios the most current popular question concerning his thoughts about the new Greek patriarch, His All Holliness Patriarch Irineos of Jerusalem and he said: . I think the patriarch will now try to reinstate the trust of the people towards the patriarchate because we have lost that for many years. It is encouraging the patriarch will provide theological and liturgical training every few months for local priests. These workshops and training are vital to maintain the true faith and worship. And the patriarch promised to take better care of the Greek Orthodox Christian Schools in the Holy Land. So we have great hope for a new era..
At the end we finished this unplanned interview with Fr. Meletios by him stating that the miraculous icon is God. s way of communicating with us. Miracles are difficult to understand and they are beyond our logic so we can only have faith. . That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.. John 1:9