Israeli Christians Mark Easter In Destroyed Village

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Surrounded by spring flowers and the ruins of their family homes near Israel’s border with Lebanon, Christians gathered Friday to ensure their Easter traditions survive decades after the destruction of their village.

There had been doubts the pilgrimage would happen at all after militants in Lebanon and the Israeli military had traded fire across the nearby frontier hours earlier.

But as people burned incense beside their relatives’ tombs, Father Souhail Khoury recounted the importance his community attached to returning to the Palestinian village of Iqrit.

“All the families of our village and their children come here on Good Friday to visit (our loved ones buried here) and our parents and to pray,” he said at the village cemetery, as people laid flowers.

Khoury said the descendants of Iqrit were keeping their customs in the hope that it would become a habit for residents “to return to their land”.

The cemetery and a hilltop church are all that remain of Iqrit, whose residents were forced to leave by the army months after the 1948 creation of Israel which sparked a war.

Despite a 1951 supreme court ruling that residents should be allowed to return, Israel’s military demolished their homes on Christmas Eve the same year.

The stones of ruined houses are still visible, amid grass and yellow flowers dotting the landscape.

“We’re here in our village, but we’re refugees in our nation,” the priest said.

Khoury led the congregation of a few dozen, from young children to the elderly, in prayer beside their family tombs.

Congregant Ziyad Hanna said the crowd had put aside fears created by the recent bombardment to visit Iqrit.

“We went through a very delicate situation… But the majority of people, despite that, come to fulfil their duties and meet each other and to continue this process and this tradition,” said the computer scientist.

“We feel proud to be part of and associated with our village and our heritage,” he told AFP.

Hundreds of villages were destroyed during the Nakba, or catastrophe, which marks the expulsion of more than 760,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948.

A book by Palestinian academic Walid Khalidi documented more than 400 destroyed or depopulated villages, while the Israeli organisation Zochrot recorded more than 600 localities.

But these events are “very much denied until now” in Israel, according to Rachel Beitarie, director of Zochrot which tries to raise awareness of the Nakba.

“Once you start seeing this, you can’t unsee this,” she said of the destroyed villages. “You see the remains everywhere.”

Having failed repeatedly to win a remedy through the Israeli courts, the descendants of Iqrit instead travel there to celebrate Christian holidays, weddings, and burials.

Ranin Attallah, marking Good Friday in Iqrit, is one of those who has also camped beside the church.

“We always come here with the people of the village, always for a short period,” said Attallah, 45, who works in education and has written poetry about the village.

“When we come here we bring (food), we sleep here, we go around, discover new things and discover our history,” she added.

As the Iqrit community gathered, Christians in Jerusalem performed a procession through the Old City, retracing the steps they believe Jesus took before his crucifixion. In an Easter message, church leaders in the sacred city warned that Christians have become “targets of attacks” in the Holy Land.

Yaser al-Ayyash, a vicar from the Melkite denomination to which Iqrit residents belong, told AFP that Christian leaders were trying to support their communities in the face of such challenges.

“We have to continue with our traditions because it expresses our faith. It is a part of our faith, it is a part of the traditional life of the church here in Jerusalem, in the Holy Land,” he said.

On the periphery of the Holy Land, the descendants of Iqrit are determined to celebrate each Easter.

“Today, the church is everyone’s home and this here is the community’s home,” said Khoury.

AFP

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