By Margy Pezdirtz
Israel welcomed an estimated 150,000 Christians for the festive 2018 Christmas season, according to the Tourism Ministry, with many joining the celebrations in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, and visiting the very locations where the Christmas story unfolded.
More than half the tourists – some 56% – who visited Israel in 2018 were Christian. By denomination these Christians were 41% Catholic, 27% Protestant, and 28% Orthodox.
One such recent visitor was award-winning author and novelist and third generation Oklahoman, Margy Pezdirtz, a leader in the Christian Zionist movement.
Below is her report from her recent visit to a Christian town, Gush Halav, on Mount Meron in northern Israel.
A Village Called ‘Jish’
In nearly every country in the Middle East, Christians are persecuted, frequently killed at the hands of their Muslim neighbors. The only country in which this does not happen is Israel, where Christians are welcome and free to worship. A classic example of this freedom of worship is the lovely village of Gush Halav, ‘Jish’ for short, sitting atop a steep hill in the foothills of Har Meron (Mountain of Meron), thirteen kilometres north of Safed, in Israel’s Upper Galilee. This small village of 3,078 citizens – according to the last census – proudly worships as Maronite Christians, a branch of the Catholic Church.
The village is a center for the Aramaic revival, an initiative by local Maronites. In Israel, we can speak of ‘revival”, elsewhere in the Middle East, only of Christian ‘suppression’.
We visited Jish just prior to Palm Sunday, the Christian feast falling on the Sunday before Easter commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We found teenagers happily preparing for the upcoming Easter parade, which they will lead with a full corps of drums escorting a large cross carried by leaders of the village. Almost every citizen will joyfully line the streets to pay silent tribute to their Savior as the cross weaves its way upward to the top of the hill where it will rest for the holiday. Looking down on this parade from the rooftop of St. George’s Church, will be the three permanent crosses that bear witness to the faith of the village. All of these crosses are lighted every night – not just Easter – to testify to all around that this is a Christian community.
There is frequently confusion as to where these Christians came from. Are they Arabs? Christian Arabs? No, not really. They are quick to make it clear that they are Aramean Maronites, not Arabs. According to Wikipedia, Arameans are a Semitic people who originated in what is a combination of the western, southern and central parts of Syria generations ago.
As to where the Christian portion came to fit, generations ago a priest by the name of Maroun felt drawn to isolate himself in the mountains of Syria to meditate and draw closer to God, the Father, through his Savior, Jesus Christ. In doing so, others were attracted to his dedication to God and began following him. Thus the name “Maronite” was attached to his followers who, today, remain dedicated in their worship of the Heavenly Father through the auspices of the Catholic Church. All Maronites are Catholics.
Originally, the Maronites spoke and prayed in Aramaic; however, over the years, the language was lost other than for prayer which only the very elderly could speak or understand. In recent years that has changed. Now students are offered the ability to learn the Aramaic language in public school through to the 8th grade, which is encouraged by the Israeli government.
While the United Nations lambasts Israel with resolutions accusing it of false human rights abuses and unfair treatment of her minorities, a hilltop in northern Israel tells another story – a beacon of truth. Here at ‘Jish’, a religion other than Judaism and a language other than Hebrew is encouraged and promoted by the Israeli government. The village youth are proud Israeli citizens. While Christians are not obligated to join the IDF, many chose to do so as volunteers upon graduating from high school. And, those who prefer not to serve in the military are quick to volunteer for Sherut Leumi an alternative national service where participants engage in programmes such as working in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, health clinics and disadvantaged communities. These are young Christians giving back to a society that has given to them – a phenomenon unheard of elsewhere in the Middle East other than in Israel.
Life is good in Gush Halav. Those interviewed expressed: “we have everything we want or need” and “are happy to live where we live and to be Israelis”.
Life is good indeed, in Gush Halav, Israel.
About the author
Margy Pezdirtz has been a leader in the Christian Zionist movement for over twenty-five years. Born a third generation Oklahoman, the granddaughter of pioneers who were the first to break the sod on their homestead in Grant County, she learned early on the significance of establishing a foundation toward building a future. Coming from a family of farmers she was taught self-reliance and the value of standing strong during the wildest of storms and hard times. She believes the lessons learned from her farm family taught her the values and determination that is necessary to establish her support for Israel. An award-winning author and novelist, Mrs. Pezdirtz is an avid student of the Bible.