The Christians in Palestine at the Restoration of the Patriarchate 1848-1858
By P. Medebielle
Father Pierre Medebielle speaks here about the first missions in Palestine: Beit-Jala and Jafa then about the first missions in Jordan: Kerak and then about the Rosary sisters
The end of the Tyranny
It is easy to imagine the effect produced by the deeds of December 2 and the great prestige these brought for Fr. Moretain. He immediately exploited this in a fight to the end against the tyranny of the Muslim chieftains. Having forced the withdrawal of Abu Gosh, he had established a position of superiority over all of them.
"What gave me the greatest authority in Beit-Jala and its neighbourhood was the air of superiority I had suddenly acquired over the greater and lesser Muslim chieftains of the area who tyrannized the people of Beit-Jala and extorted from them all manner of things at every moment. I succeeded in putting an end to this tyranny."(16)
He received the total support of Msgr. Valerga and Mr. Botta, and soon after that of the new Governor, Kamel Pasha, who visited him and on occasion of the visit gave official recognition to the authority the missionary was wielding:
"The Pasha had come to dine at Beit-Jala with the Consul and the Patriarch. He learned that I was governing the village in fact, although without authority, and he confirmed me in the post, even authorizing me to establish a prison. I have used this power with great discretion. occasionally, and for a few hours. imprisoning both Catholics and Greeks, private individuals and the sheikhs of the Muslim villages."(17)
Fr. Moretain was relentless in his pursuit of those who stole from his Christians:
"I began by having thieves severely punished by the Pasha... and thefts graduafly began to come to an end, at least as far as the Muslims were concerned. I forbade the Muslim chieftains to get my Christians involved in their wars and to interfere in the business of my village without my permission, which they reluctantly accepted... When some Muslim chieftains disregarded this prohibition and came to demand something from the people of Beit Jala, I was immediately informed of this by people who were not happy at having to make this payment, and sent messengers to me. I went to confront these Mulims, and clearly showing my anger. I asked them what they were looking for. I then began to drive them from the village, going so far as to pull their beards. On occasion I even added a few blows to make clear it was no joking matter. That is how I treated the sheiks and their subjects. They did not dare to come back.(18)
Fr. Moretain was particularly hard on the sheiks of Walajeh, claimed a sort of suzerainty over Beit Jala, and especially on Abou Cheikha, who had taken part in the raid of December 1853. He prohibited them from setting foot in Beit Jala:
"They obeyed my order, and for more than two years they did not appear there unless I had sent them a written invitation... on their arrival they would visit me, and be given instructions to settle their business fairly, and then give account of it to me. Usually the papers would be given to me to inspect. Khalil Cheikha, one of the leaders of Walajeh had stolen five goats from one of our Catholics some years before. He refused to return them, not even replying to two letters I wrote to him about the matter. When he came to see the building work, I demanded that he return the animals. Since he refused, I had him bound by my janissary and taken to Jerusalem to be handed over to the Pasha. Msgr. pardoned him on receiving his promise to return the goats. How wretched to see such behaviour in a lord who lowers himself to stealing four or five goats, and allows himself to be put in chains before returning them, and does this only when he is at the gates of the prison.
On another occasion, one of the Hassanieh chieftains wanted to rebuild his house in the village of Walajeh ... he came to requisition wood from the people of Beit Jala. Each of them brought along different sized lengths of wood, and there quickly appeared two piles of more or less spontaneous offerings, while the chief was drinking coffee with the chiefs of Beit Jala. I was informed of what was happening, and since I was determined to prevent the Hannasieh entering the village to make their demands, I decided to oppose this venture... I went to the Arab chieftains to demand an explanation. They told me they needed the wretched bits of wood to rebuild their ruined village. I almost weakened, because I knew they were indeed in great need: but that would be to reopen the door to all their old demands and exactions, which was what they wanted.
I told them that the 10 or 12 Muslim villages under their control should be asked to contribute, and the people of Beit Jala left in peace. I was also engaged in building work, and needed the wood, and I would use what had been collected. A large crowd had gathered to see what would happen, so I told each of them to take a piece of wood and take it to the construction Site. It was all done in the twinkling of an eye, the people singing as they did the work. My idea was to use the wood, which was not worth very much, in the building of an arch. and then return it. However everyone refused, and they all praised me for having put an end to the latest attempts of the Muslims to impose their demands. which had always been satisfied previously through fear."(19)
Athough he alwavs insisted that quarrels concerning Beit Jala should be submitted to him, wisely and prudently Fr. Moretain usually kept his distance from the problems involved in having to take sides. He would inform himself of the situation, and then:
... I would declare that I was not competent, and tell them: you well know that I am a foreigner in your country. I don't know your customs well enough ... my ministry is not to judge but to preach the Gospel. But you must choose a judge. and you will not leave my house until you have come to an agreement on this."(20)
After the Crimean war the position obtained by Fr. Moretain in Beit Jala could be seen very clearly. The different Patriarchs had lost their judicial authoriy over their flocks in the civil forum. Logically Fr. Moretain should have lost his rights of imprisonment and the quasi-official function granted to him by Kamel Pasha. But in fact nothing changed in Belt Jala, and his position was unchallenged. The Greeks were annoyed at his influence, and wanted to take advantage of the change official attitudes. They once more sent a monk to Beit Jala to open a breach in his authority. It was in vain: indeed, the monk was one of those who were obliged to the missionary for his help:
"Since the great majority of the inhabitants of the village were Greek Orthodox, my influence would have been very limited if it had been restricted to the Catholics alone. However. for over a year the people of Beit Jala paid no attention to him. and Greeks and Latins all continued to turn to me for help in all sorts of matters, without my provoking this in any way. The monk was insulted on occasions. and even beaten. It was the Greeks who were guilty of these deeds against a member of their own communion. He came to me to complain about them, and placed himself under my protection. I had those responsible punished. On several occasions I had to defend him from his co-religionaries threatening them. (21).
Fr. Moretain's apostolic plans had worked. His courage and dedication to all the people of Belt Jala, and the incredible way in which he had freed them from the Muslim tyranny had caused a flow of conversions. Fr. Moretain did everything he could to make sure they took it seriously:
"A large number of Greeks wanted to become Latins after my great succes in making justice triumph over force. They told me, You have performed a great service for us, I want to belong to your religion. Write down my name.' I made them see that first they would have to receive instruction, go to confession, receive communion, and then I would write down the names. But most of them did not offer to become Catholics or even come to thank me. Ingratitude."(22)
If the number of conversions was not as high as Fr. Moretain probably counted on, they were at least serious, as can be seen from trial they were subjected to. The conversions had alarmed the Patriarchate, and the monk was provided with abundant funds to chase the return of the newly converted. Out of more than 250, only were tempted. Fr. Moretain's sorrow was tempered by the fidelity of the immense majority of his flock. The mission was now well established he could now leave it without fears for its future. Latin Petitioners in Galilee When the news of Moretain's exploits reached Galilee it caught the imagination of the people of the village of Jaffa. This was then a small village three kilometres from Nazareth. Nowadays the expansion of both town and village have practically united them. A group of 80 peasants contacted Fr. Tannous, who was from Nazareth and had been ordained a priest in 1865. He persuaded Msgr. Valerga to send a zealous young Italian missionary. When the Patriarch asked him for news of the 80-90 dissidents who claimed to be Catholics, Fr. Fattori replied in all sincerity: In all honesty, who could rely on a people that has no knowledge of the Christian religion. and is distinguished from the Muslims only by an inveterate family custom (tribal spirit) rather than by a faith different from that of the Muslims. At least as far as the country people are concerned, the Greek Church and the dogmas it proclaims are no obstacle to the acceptance of Catholic truth.
The only, but overwhelming, dogmatic difficulty is the total ignorance of all Christian dogma. A natural. but powerful and disastrous result is that they are only interested in material benefits. No one knows, and no one is interested in knowing whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or from the Son, or whether Purgatory exists or not. One is reminded of the people of Samaria who told the Apostles concerning the existence of the Holy Spirit, that they knew nothing about it. As long as the fellah finds a protector whenever he has a problem couldn't care whether it is the Greek priest, the Latin priest, or the Protestant minister. Whoever it is, the fellah is much obliged to him for day, says that he belongs to his religion whichever it might be, although obviously knows nothing about it, except that it exists. What can be done with these people? I believe they need to form their conscience by means of religious instruction. But that requires a priest to be here permanently to make use of all the time and all the means available.
I include a note (now disappeared) with the names of all those who claim to be Catholics. I have questioned each of them personally and written down their names. All of them claim to belong to the Catholic Church. If this is true, they are all nominally Catholics, in complete ignorance of Catholic truths and the Sacraments. It is not surprising that they have paid no attention to the jubilee, and have not made their Easter communion. Naturally, ignoranti, nulla cupido."(23)
Unfortunately the priest did not reside in Jaffa, and the people were often absent from the village working their land in the plain of Esdrelon, making it difficult for a visiting priest to get in touch with them. However, the Patriarch was able to provide two missionaries to follow them up. One of them was the French Fr. Legrand, a very good priest, who used a little room next to the Church which the Patriarch through Fr. Tannous, had asked the Franciscans of Nazareth to build. These priests initiated the spiritual formation of their flock. Fr, Damiani of Jerusalem, who was resident parish priest between 1879 -1883, was in the position to give comforting news:
"Thanks be to God, I am very pleased with the inhabitants of the village. Since I have been here I have seen the people coming to Church frequently. On Sundays, it is full for the catechism classes, and both men and women attend."(24)
The same parish priest also practised the devotion of the month of St Joseph
"with at least 50 persons, even though the sermon is rather long. Each day the people come to Mass together with the boys and girls from the school"(25).
The presbytery was built in 1883. Latin Petitioners in Transjordan Since the country suffered from constant tribal wars, until 1874 it had been too dangerous to send a missionary to Kerak. Abouna Skandar (Alessandro Macagno 1841-1905), the priest who was sent at that time, was a saint. He, too, found that the Christians were only nominally so, suffering from the same crass ignorance as those in Galilee.
But in Kerak they were brave warriors, esteemed and respected by the Muslims, who were themselves ignorant of their religion. Out of superstition, they had their children baptized in the shrine of EI-Khader, believing that this would make them strong and give them a long life. All of them, not excluding the Emir Majali, had been ruined by the tribal wars. Our poor Latins are only too ready to wring money from the missionary... almost all of them are Christians in name only because of their tribe - and that in order to obtain food and protection. But with religious formation they will gradually come to expect only spiritual nourishment and help from the missionary. They will even reach the point of helping the Church from their own resources."(26)
The formation imparted by this saint led to the fulfilment of the prophecy. One of his 3rd generation Akasheh helped in the building of the Church in 1932. He purchased the wood for the roof in Damascus, and donated to the parish priest the money left over from the price of the wood he had bought. His son was to be of great help to the priests in the South in difficult times, and his grandson was ordained as a priest of the Latin Patriarchate in 1978, Father Khaled Akasheh, today workong in the Vatican.
The situation of the women was of great concern to the first Latin missionaries, since it was almost impossible for them to have dealings with them. Providence intervened with the creation in 1880 of the Arab Sisters of the Rosary. A girl from Jerusalem was educated by the Sisters of St. Joseph (who had arrived in 1848), and then joined the order. Having assimilated the spirituality of the Sisters, and as the only Arab, she set up the Daughters of Mary and the Christian Mothers in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
In 874 she experienced visions of the Virgin Mary, who charged her with asking the Patriarch to establish the Arab Congregation of the Rosary. Patriarch Bracco(1873-1889) did this, following the indications of the Virgin Mary, and appointed Fr. Tannous as spiritual director of the sister.
In 1883 she joined the new community. She was sent as a missionary to Jaffa of Nazareth, Nablus, Zababdeh, Beit Sahour, and Salt, and in all these places she organized the Daughters of Mary and Christian Mothers, Apart from the Patriarch and Fr. Tannous, no one knew her secret, not even her sister, who was the superior general. This was only revealed after her death in 1927, when her notebook, written on the orders of Fr. Tannous, was sent to Patriarch Barlassina.
There was rivalry among the missionaries to obtain the help of these Rosary Sisters in dealing with the women. They have been providential in the missions and the Latin schools, and instrumental in the cultural and religious formation of women on both banks of the Jordan. It is good to remember this nowadays as we witness the extraordinary development of the girls' schools and the flourishing of religious vocations among the Arab girls. The practically unknown foundress, a soul of prayer, who was ranted miracles during her lifetime, is now well on the way to glorification.