It’s a Sunday morning service like many others. Filled with scripture reading and hymns accompanied by organ. During "How Great Thou Art," those who know it well close their books, singing from memory. After the service people drink coffee and tea in the hall next to the sanctuary.
This congregation, however, isn’t in Abbotsford, British Columbia, or Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It’s the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Beit Sahour, in Palestine’s West Bank.
Some people consider Beit Sahour to be the birthplace of Christianity. The city’s name — depending on the original language — refers either to the shepherds or the wise men in the biblical Christmas story. Two different sites in the city claim to be the fields where the shepherds saw the angels of the Lord. The city of Bethlehem lies just to the West.
Living as a Christian in the Holy Land is a special experience for Rev. Ashraf Tannous, the pastor of the Beit Sahour congregation. “This is the land of Jesus, this is the land of the Bible,” he says. “This is the land of the birth, this is the land of resurrection, this is the land of ascension, this is the land of the humiliation of Jesus, this is the land of everything. It’s very unique.”
But living in the land of the Bible also comes with challenges for Palestinians. It’s a land where the Israeli government confiscates Palestinian property. It’s a land where Palestinians need a permit to visit holy sites in Jerusalem. It’s a land where members of Tannous’ family were forced out of their home during the war in 1948. It’s a land Palestinians, Christians and Muslims alike, are leaving in search of a life with fewer obstacles.
What makes the situation worse for Tannous is the feeling that his Christian family around the world has turned their backs.
You feel it burning inside you
Tannous has been pastor at the Beit Sahour congregation for five years, but his desire to serve the church has been with him much longer. At the age of 10, the pastor of his church in Ramallah asked him to be an altar boy. “He came to my house, and he gave me the keys of the church and he told me, ‘Ashraf you are now responsible for opening the church, ringing the bells, lighting the candles.’”
That request changed his life. “I became responsible for the church, all these procedures. So then slowly it became kind of ‘in me,’ it became part of me to become a servant,” he says.
When Tannous graduated from high school, he made a deal with God – if he was accepted to study theology in Lebanon and got the necessary visas, he would take that as a clear sign that God wanted him as a servant. His family tried to convince him to apply to other universities as a back-up plan, but he refused. “This is what is called, ‘the call,’ you know, you feel it burning inside you,” he says. He was accepted, and after his studies in Lebanon he went on to the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Institute at Bossey in Switzerland before doing a one-year internship in Germany.
At the end of his year in Germany he was invited to stay and work with the church there. But he chose to return to Palestine: “This is my home, this is where I belong. Here where my heart and my mind is. Here where I want to bring children, give birth to children, where I want my children to grow up and to live and to die.”
MCC photo/Emily Loewen
Our hope comes from heaven
Choosing that life in Palestine isn’t easy. His father’s family was driven from their home in Lydda (Lod in Hebrew), in 1948 during what’s known as The War of Independence in Israel, and the Nakba (Catastrophe) for Palestinians. They fled to Jordan where five of Tannous’s aunts and uncles still live, unable to return because they don’t have the necessary Palestinian identification papers.
Travel to Jerusalem, about 30 minutes away, requires a permit which isn’t guaranteed. And even with a permit it means passing through military check-points. The former pastor of Tannous’s congregation lives near an Israeli settlement and worries his land will be taken. (Learn more about settlements). In nearby Bethlehem, multiple refugee camps are filled with generations of Palestinian families who haven’t been able to return home for nearly 70 years. The unemployment rate in Palestine was over 26 per cent in 2014.1 It was just under 6 per cent the same year in Israel.2
Tannous has seen the Christians and Muslims in his community leave Palestine fleeing the conflict or leaving because it’s too hard to earn a living and support a family.
It’s a struggle to keep faith alive under occupation, says Tannous. “Most of the time we ask [God] to end occupation, to live a very beautiful life, peaceful life,” he says. “And when we don’t get these prayers fulfilled, when people don’t get it, they feel they are left by God.”
Tannous says the role of the church in this context is to help maintain hope for a peaceful and more just future. “To confirm for our people that our hope, faith and love does not come from the people themselves but it comes from heaven, from Jesus Christ the one who taught us how to hope, how to love and how to appreciate our life here.”
You have to work for love, peace and reconciliation
Tannous believes strongly in the role of the church in Palestine, but he doesn’t always feel the Christian community worldwide supports them. Despite Palestine being the land of Jesus, many are surprised to hear there are Christians living there today. “Most of the Christians all over the world unfortunately they don’t know that there are Christian brothers and sisters in Palestine, fighting for the justice, fighting for freedom,” he says. “People think that Christianity came from Europe, from America and so on, and they forget, Christianity emerged ... from the heart of the Holy Land.”
Tannous has seen churches ignore the situation or, worse, support the Israeli government, the state that’s causing his oppression. “This is what makes me very upset that lots of Christians insist that no, the Jewish people are better than the other. No they are not better, we are all God’s children.”
Tannous also believes it’s the role of all Christians to put their faith into action, working for an end to occupation and conflict. He likes a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Faith without hope is sick,” but he would take it further, asking Christians to build relationships and advocate for justice. “I mean faith without hope, without love, without bridge building, without working for the others, without cooperating with the others...without working against humiliation and check points and walls is as well sick."
"When you are a Christian you have to work for love, for peace, for reconciliation,” he says. “Defending the people who are living under occupation.”
Tannous knows that no description he offers can give a true picture of life in Palestine. His words alone aren’t enough for some to take action. That’s why he invites Christians around the world to come and see the struggles of life in the Holy Land. “The moment people come and see and recognize the existence of Christians, and not only Christians, the first Christians,” he says, “this might change lots of things.”
Pastor Ashraf's story is part A Cry for Home, which offers stories, videos and fact sheets from MCC on Palestine and Israel. Learn more about A Cry for Home.