My Candid Chat With a Displaced Syrian Catholic Priest

Illustration: Christian Orthodox Priest (Image credit: Milner Moshe/Government Press Office of Israel)

As I scoured the seating possibilities in the waiting area of the U.S. consulate, waiting to process my passport, I sought out what might be the most interesting place to sit: next to a colorfully-robed gentleman with a big golden cross hanging from his neck.

I greeted him and asked his denomination. “Syrian Catholic,” he replied. I have not met many of them to be sure. Originally from Iraq, from where his ancient community hails, he lives in Bethlehem and the U.S.

There are definitely things to learn from this man, I thought. So I said, "I understand that Christians are fleeing the Mideast?"

"Yes they are, unfortunately."

"Bethlehem was an all Christian city and is now mostly Muslim, right?" I asked.

"It is about half now, but yes, many Christians are selling their homes cheap and leaving," he replied.

"You mean the Palestinian Authority has not been welcoming to your community?"

I saw on his face how he was not sure how to handle this one. Would he be quoted? Who is this guy asking these questions?

"Well, you know the situation...We just want to live in peace with everyone... We were loyal citizens of Iraq and Syria… but now it is all coming apart, unfortunately. Sadly, Christians have no place left in the Mideast."

"Except Israel," I said.

"Yes, except Israel."

I thought of how welcoming HIS church has been to Jews historically. A moment of silence passed, and then he leaned into me and said in a hushed voice, "Why did you leave Bethlehem? It was so good when you were in charge. Everyone got along. Business was very good There were lots of tourists."

“For peace,” I answered.

How shall I describe the look he gave me? He did not know if I was being facetious or totally naive - or just plain stupid (it was the first of course).

As I let him try to figure it out, I mentioned that it says in the Bible that Ishmael is a "wild person" and shall always be in conflict with everyone.

Now he understood that I was in fact not totally stupid and could be trusted. He opened up a little more.“Why do you think G-d created Ishmael in the first place?" he asked.

This was going to be an interesting discussion. But unfortunately I could not offer a reasoned theological/philosophical explanation or hear his, as my number was called, and we parted.

Still I wondered how he sounds when talking to Christians or Muslims about Jews.

I thought how grateful I was that, thank G-d, he is the one living out of a suitcase and speaking in whispers, not me and my people - not anymore.

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...הָרִימִי בַכֹּחַ קוֹלֵךְ מְבַשֶּׂרֶת יְרוּשָׁלִָם הָרִימִי אַל תִּירָאִי אִמְרִי לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה הִנֵּה אֱלֹקֵיכֶם! (ישעיה  מ:ט)

...Raise your voice with strength, herald of Jerusalem; raise it, do not be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your G-d!"

(Isaiah 40:9)

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© 2017 by The Jerusalem Herald, a division of Yashar Communications