Palestinian Christian Easter Traditions Remain Strong, but Dwindling Numbers and the Occupation Threaten the Community's Future
By: Muna Killingback / Arab America contributing writer
From date-filled pastries molded in the shape of Christ’s crown of thorns to boy and girl scouts marching and playing drums and bagpipes, Palestinian Christians continue to celebrate Easter in the land where Christianity was born. In Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories–the West Bank including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip– just over 200,000 Palestinian Christians comprised of Eastern and Western denominations continue to commemorate Easter in ways that link them to two millennia of traditions begun by their forebears, the original Christian community of Palestine.
Reverend Fahed AbuAkel, is a Palestinian-American Presbyterian minister who served as Moderator of the 214th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA. Growing up in Kuffer Yassif, a village northwest of Nazareth, he recounts, “As a child in Galilee, our faith in God came alive during Easter. Fasting, attending church, the power of liturgy, and worship were so significant to family life. For us, my seven siblings–five sisters and two brothers–and many relatives, Easter was key for healing and celebration.”
Rev. AbuAkel describes his vivid memories of “memorable times and the most delicious food, especially the sweets and pastries that were made during Easter. Ka’ek & ma’moul cookies stuffed with dates were shaped like circles to represent the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head during crucifixion [See recipes here for ka’ek and ma’moul Easter Cookies (almondandfig.com)]. Boiled eggs were dyed with different colors, and I used to challenge the other kids in my neighborhood to egg cracking competitions. On a Saturday years ago, I took four or five eggs from home that my mother believed could withstand cracking when struck against another egg. I remember coming back home with 10 more eggs as I won many contests.”
“Family visitations were another important part of our Palestinian Easter tradition,” recalls Reverand AbuAkel, “And making peace with everyone else was at the helm of celebrating Easter. We visited with other families from different faiths and backgrounds including Muslim and Druze families in the village.”
Philip Farah, a Palestinian Christian native of Jerusalem, remembers the joyful excitement of Palm Sunday, the beginning of the Holy Week celebrations: “We woke up early to decorate large fronds of palm trees that our parents bought us. We competed for the most beautiful decorations to display in large processions led by the Boy Scouts’ marching bands of the different Christian denominations, which also competed in staging the best music and fanfare for their marches.
The next great festivity we anticipated took place on the Saturday just before Easter Sunday, when huge crowds of pilgrims from around the world would join local Palestinian Christians in awaiting the emergence of the Holy Fire from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The fire is said to appear miraculously in Jesus’ burial chambers and the throng outside waits with candles and lanterns to take the Holy Fire, sometimes to places as far away as Russia.”
Yet despite the colorful and sacred traditions they maintain, the Palestinian Christian community faces many challenges. The number of indigenous Palestinian Christians continues to dwindle as fewer remain in historic Palestine. Those that remain–split between the Eastern rite Orthodox branch and Catholics, Anglicans, and various Protestant denominations, confront all the same obstacles to ordinary life as Muslim Palestinians, such as needing permits from Israel to travel to Jerusalem.
Israel strictly controls entry to Jerusalem for all Palestinians, Muslims, and Christians alike. Farah notes that “It is harder for some of our relatives from Ramallah or Bethlehem to visit Jerusalem during Easter because of the Occupation than it is for an American tourist! It is even harder for Christians from the Gaza Strip. They watch the celebrations on television sorrowfully remembering when they had free access to their beloved Jerusalem.”
Rev. AbuAkel stresses that Palestinian American Christians living here in the US must remind American churches never to forget the churches in Palestine: “We must pray and advocate for the Palestinian Arab Christians to thrive and prosper in Palestine. Seventy-five years ago, the Christian population in Palestine was close to 25 percent of the whole Palestinian Arab Population; today they are less than two percent.”
Rev. AbuAkel is also an officer on the Board of the Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace (PCAP) that represents this community’s voice and vision to the Christian faithful in America, conducting outreach and educating them about the impact of the occupation on all Palestinians and what they can do to work for peace with justice. “PCAP welcomes new members and supporters,” he emphasizes, “Our mission of informing individual Christians and churches about what is happening in Palestine and what they can do to end the injustice and human rights violations there is more important than ever.”
Another PCAP leader, Rev. Alex Awad, founder of Christ at the Checkpoint and a minister in both the Methodist and Baptist churches, emphasizes the hope that Palestinians maintain in the face of oppression: “Today’s Palestinian Christians have been summoned to carry their cross and walk a modern-day Via Del Rosa. However, they have faith that their cross will lead, not only to Calvary but to the Empty Tomb, signifying Resurrection and rebirth.”
Other resources: Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem
Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace Book Corner
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