What is an Arab Christian cleric to do when his congregation has been steadily diminishing amid a tide of Muslim Arab refugees and immigrants? At first the situation sounds like the perfect recipe for brewing religious conflict—while Israel, with a population of 7.4 million, is predominantly Jewish it also has a significant Arab minority of 1.4 million, yet within this minority group exists yet a smaller, more vulnerable one—123,000 Arab Christians. Despite the numbers, Father Masoud Abu Hatoum, known informally as “the bulldozer” for his enthusiasm, has found light-hearted and diplomatic ways to revive the dwindling Christian community of Kufr Kana (the Biblical Cana), where it is traditionally believed that Jesus turned water into wine, without taking the traditional approach of proclaiming holy war on invading “infidels”.

Most of the Christians leaving Kufr Kana are young; in order to escape “boring” village life and find better employment, they have moved away to larger towns such as Nazareth and Tiberias, and especially the thriving coastal cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv, “which offer bigger Christian communities, more jobs and better marriage prospects”, reports Diaa Hadid of WTOP radio station. According to Hadid, “Kufr Kana was entirely Christian at the beginning of the 20th century, but Muslims began settling in the village first as traders, and then as refugees fleeing fighting during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, locals said. Now the village is home to 16,000 Muslims and 4,000 Christians.” Churches in the village see Sunday attendance faltering at twenty to a couple dozen, and most of these congregation members consist of the middle-aged and elderly.

Such emigration of young congregation members is, of course, difficult to stem, and it is a challenge to re-invent stale and traditional sermons and ceremonies to make these relevant to increasingly cynical and practical youths, let alone to persuade them to choose their religious community over employment opportunities in the secular world. Of course, if Abu Hatoum’s re-invention of his congregation proves amusing enough to retain and even attract creative types, it could mean the blossoming of an alternative, even bohemian, Christian “pilgrimage” site, and a new facet to the village’s tourist economy.

In an attempt to keep young Christians in town, therefore, the priest has adopted a strategy to make worship in the village more entertaining, exploit its reputation as the site where Jesus turned water into wine, and re-invigorate its image as a vibrant Christian community. One Christmas, the priest constructed a ninety-foot-tall framework of a Christmas tree, billing it as the tallest Christmas tree in the Holy Land, which, according to Hadid, attracted an Israeli television crew and earned Abu Hatoum a segment on a local radio show. The priest plans to perform a summer pageant at his church portraying Jesus’ water-into-wine miracle, then to officiate over a mass wedding there in October. Already, with the fame Abu Hatoum has garnered for his efforts, the village church has shown signs of a transformation into a rather quirky destination featuring an off-the-wall, alternative variety of Christian worship.

Is Abu Hatoum’s attempt to revive his community a sign of irreverence for Christianity? Could it even be labeled tacky? It is widely understood that the early Church made well calculated attempts to incorporate ancient pagan worship sites into newly built churches to attract potential converts and enlarge their “flock”. It is a far more peaceful effort, moreover, than to take a belligerent stance and attempt to “save” Christian holy sites from the “faithless”—even the Crusades could backfire on Christendom, as during the Fourth Crusade of 1202-1204, when Crusaders attacked and sacked the fellow Christian cities of the Catholic port of Zara, in Dalmatia, and the mighty Greek Orthodox capitol of Byzantium, Constantinople, merely in return for funding of their expedition to Egypt, which never happened anyway.

As Hadid reports, “Relations with Muslims” in Kufr Kana “tend to be cool but polite”, and the delicate and complex interrelationships among religions in the area persist. And Abu Hatoum’s gigantic, wood-framed Christmas tree, summer pageant on Jesus turning water into wine, and mass wedding ceremony—with all their quirks, kitsch, and newfangled amusements to lure young people and Christian tourists—do offer a more peaceful, laissez-faire, economically inventive option for re-asserting a Christian presence in shrinking Christian communities. Indeed, they are a sorely needed example of levity and maintenance of religious harmony in a perennially strife-ridden region of the world.

Source & Image: WTOP

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