The Christians in Palestine at the restoration of the Patriarchate 1848-1858
Father Medebielle, a very know scholar and historian in the Holy Land, give us a brief history of the Christians i at the restoration of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem between 1848-1858.
The Latin Patriarchate was re-established during the Pontificate of Pope Pius IX, and was immediately provided with its Pastor. The new appointed Patriarch Valerga took possession of his seat in January 1and immediately set to work. For the first 19 months after his arrival. would take stock of his diocese, in the process discovering that there were 4,141 Catholics.
The Latin Catholics in 1848
The Patriarch found himself with 4,141 Catholics receiving spiritual attention from the Franciscans of the Holy Land. In such a de-christianized environment and in such difficult times, the manpower available was insufficient to satisfy the spiritual needs of this flock. The Christians were a tiny minority in the midst of a vast mass of Muslims, and were distinguished only by the fact of belonging to a particular clan. If a certain tribe was Christian, then an individual would be Christian, but without any real knowledge of what distinguished his faith from that of a Muslim. Many Muslims had their children baptized in El Khader, because tradition maintained that a child baptized there would be strong.
The new Patriarch commented that the Catholic mission depended on charity, as did the other religions in the Holy Land.
"This is not limited to the Catholics, but applies to the other confessions. Latins, Greeks, Armenians, Protestants, and even the Jews are maintained only by the generosity of benefactors(2)."
In fact the two Muslim taxes (Jezieh - poll tax, Kharaj - land tax) and the Turkish taxes on Catholics were all paid by the Franciscans, who also provided them with housing and frequently even settled their debts(3), with no regard to the needs of the people.
"At the moment of the restoration of the Patriarchate the spiritual regime of this church was maintained, or rather, was based on charitable works which assisted the population, the rich as well as the poor. The slightest withdrawal of help, even when it was neither needed nor deserved, was the cause of apostasy, even in Jerusalem, where, however, the Catholic spirit is not as weak as in Bethlehem and Nazareth... This is not peculiar to the Catholics, but equally affects the other communities"(4).
The Franciscan apostolate was limited to the towns in which their parishes were situated (Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jaffa, Ramleh, Ain Karem). There was no pastoral activity in the Palestinian villages.
The Christians of the Greek Patriarchate
It was the Greek Christians who appealed to Patriarch Valerga once they had seen his missionaries at work. Beit Jala was the first mission to be opened (1853) by the Patriarch, who had to overcome a generalized opposition to its establishment, which had repercussions in Europe.
Fr. Jean Moretain (1813-1883) was a truly missionary spirit, whose deeds made a great impact throughout the country, and led to further appeals to the Patriarch for help. Living so close to Bethlehem where the Catholics, like those Jerusalem, received so much help from the Franciscans, he was aware of the jealousy and the demands of his parishioners.
"A number of people became Latins on our arrival, thinking that we give them money; seeing that the money was not forthcoming, they have fallen away, and they have done well to do so. I have been approached in so many different ways. Sometimes a whole district, five or six hundred people, have promised to become Catholics paid the poll tax (Jesziah) or the Kharaj (land tax). We have never agreed to this and I have always stated ... that I would prefer 10 converts obtained for nothing, than a thousand for money, because money does not make religion"(8).
And yet it was necessary to find a way to reach out to these so concerned about material profit, and so ignorant and indifferent religious matters. Fr. Moretain indignantly rejected the use of any financial inducements (Memoires 270). He was, however, convinced that people could only be approached in some tangible way. Charity could attract them, and this had to take some material form.
"Did not Our Lord and the missionaries of all times do good to the body in order to reach the soul...! St. Paul says that man is too earthly and animal to understand the things of God. The people of Beit Jala are particularly so, accustomed as they are to the Greek schism, which in their eyes differs so little from us. They would have great difficulty in understanding a religion which brought them no material benefits!" (9)
He considered ways of ending the centuries long tyranny of local Muslim potentates over them.
"I resolved to attract them by kindness. Apart from the services I rendered to each of them individually, I set about protecting all of them, Latins Greeks, against the tyranny of the local Turks and Muslims, and in this I have succeeded" (10).
Right from the start he had a clear idea of what he wanted, and the determination to achieve his aims. It must be said that Providence had endowed him with exceptional gifts: his clear understanding of the problem he faced, the firmest of wills, a courage sufficient to withstand any trial, his height which made a deep impression; the total support of Patriarch Valerga, who as the months passed taught him how to deal with both natives and Turks; the determined support of his consul, Mr. Botta, the friend and savior of the Patriarch in Mossoul, and the political situation in general worked in his favor:
"I was helped by circumstances: the allied fleets (including the French) had entered the Black Sea (in 1854). Just being French was enough to earn more respect than others (11). The new Pasha, too, was an excellent person, devoted to the Consul and to Msgr. Valerga (11). Besides, in the East authority is granted to those who know how to seize it, and how to guide their people firmly, but justly ... it is the gentlest and easiest to govern, provided it is led energetically but justly" (12)
The sad situation of the Christians at this time
"One (Muslim) chief or another would pass through and demand some thousands of piasters. This demand would be imposed on the country on top of the taxes owed to the Sultan. The sheikhs of Beit Jala whom he would charge with this task, not content with raising the sum demanded by the Muslim, would raise a higher sum, and keep the surplus for themselves. They were therefore very much in favor of these little plundering, the frequency of which merely increased their own wealth and well-being... Some days after this Muslim had left, another would arrive to claim something for himself, and a month later, another or the same would be demanding from our peasants, not money, but oil, wood, dried figs etc. Although a frequent occurrence in the course of the year, all this was not too bad, and the demands were met, even if reluctantly.
Far worse was the arrival of a large group of these Muslims, all of them armed. They would take over a house, and order a sheep or two, according to the number, to be slaughtered for them. The householder, if he was poor, would have to sell or mortgage his olive trees, losing up to a third of their worth, to raise enough money to buy the food for his guests. If he refused or took too long to prepare dinner, he would be beaten, or threatened with the cutting down of his trees.
At Easter and Christmas in the East it is the custom to visit neighbors to wish them a happy feast. On the occasion of these feasts, the Muslims would flock into Beit Jala from all around, and 50-60 sheep would be needed to welcome them, to say nothing of the cost of coffee, butter, rice, tobacco, etc. This was an enormous load for a village which was constantly being squeezed dry. At other times, the fields around Beit Jala were invaded, and the olives, figs, grapes were plundered, leaving some of the inhabitants with no harvest. A specific number of piasters also had to be given to the local Turkish chiefs for every girl that was married, for every tree that was sold, etc. The Muslims were also at war amongst themselves: and since they had divided the people of Beit Jala, the latter had to take part in the war and become involved in their quarrels. And so the village was called to arms whenever there was any kind of sabre rattling of one group of Muslims against another. And if the Muslims visited you? If they saw you with cloak, a musket, a sword that caught their fancy, they would take it walk off with it, and there was no right of appeal. The same thing happened with the flocks in the fields. The best of both sheep and goats would disappear, to be included in the flocks of the sheikh... (13).
The same situation applied to all the Christians in Palestine
Providence provided Moretain with the chance he needed December 2. 1854. In the quarrel between the sheikhs of Abu Gosh and those of Walajeh, Beit Jala had taken the side of Walajeh, which was the nearer.
Moustapha of Abu Gosh and 600 men seized El-Khader on to Beit Jala. Panic reigned in the village, and everything, furniture provisions, was carried off to Bethlehem. The villagers begged Moretain to ask Msgr. Valerga for an order from the Pasha forbidding Abu Gosh from moving against Beit Jala. Msg.-. Valerga obtained the order.
"I immediately brought it back with me in the middle of the night. The rain was pouring down, as it had been during the whole of my journey, order was sent to Abu Gosh. The following day as an indication of he thought of the Pasha, his only reaction was to give his army the order to march on Beit Jala. About 10 o'clock the next day the outposts that our village had established on the hillside brought back news that Abu Gosh was about arrive. As a result a crowd of both Catholics and Greeks came to appeal to me to go out to meet him, as if a single, unarmed priest could by his presence halt the advance of a conquering hero and his horde of barbarians! All this took place in the midst of the most atrocious weather. I ran up the hill ... I waited a few minutes in an empty field at the entrance to the village, where I knew he would have to pass by.
The savage cries of a large crowd could be heard as the disordered mob rushed down from the mountains ... horsemen and foot soldiers dashed on in confusion, the rank and file first, and the chiefs behind... The first of the warriors to arrive was a well-dressed black horseman. I seized the reins of his horse, and refused to let him go on, in spite of his efforts. He did not dare to strike me. But from all sides poured unruly mob of Muslims, dressed in a robe, with a belt and turban, and with bare feet, all armed with a sword and musket ... The noise grew louder as people poured in from both sides, and it was impossible to understand what was happening in the midst of this unparalleled confusion... Soon after the black horseman, however, another horsemen arrived in the midst of the crowd. He was dressed in white, and his clothing and weapons indicated that he was a Sheikh.
I took him for Abu Gosh, whom I did not know. I abandoned my black, and ran to catch hold of the reins of his horse. This sheikh was Abu Gosh's lieutenant, and the rival of Abu Cheikha. It was on his account that Abu Gosh was at war. He tried to make me loosen my grip by making his horse spin round in the crowd. As he did not succeed, he cried out "What fun, What fun", as though it were all a joke. It did not seem much fun to me... he tried to make me understand the reason for their coming and their intentions, but in vain. I knew only a little Arabic, and in the midst of all that noise it was impossible to catch more than the occasional word! My dragoman, my servant and my janissary were all lost in the middle of the crowd. The rain was pouring down, and I had also lost my cloak and umbrella. A big Arab gentleman then arrived, mounted on a well-built steed splendidly harnessed in the style of the country. His weapons were beautifully chased in silver.
It was now clear I was mistaken, and that the newcomer was Abu Gosh. I abandoned the other, and ran to catch hold of the third to stop him in the midst of his troops... Abu Gosh, who openly disobeyed the orders of the Pasha, seemed particularly embarrassed to find himself stopped by a mere Christian priest. He swung his horse around and brandished his sword at me to frighten me: to no avail, since I was not afraid and I felt that he would not dare to strike me, alone as I was and unarmed... I held on to him for more than ten minutes in the midst of the greatest confusion and the most frightful noise... When he saw that I was determined he would not enter the village, he gave the order to retreat and set off up the road to St. George with his horde.
One of the leaders of the village of Beit Jala, a declared supporter of his, then told him, "Forget about the priest; come with me to my home." Abu Gosh was able to explain what he intended to do and make me certain promises through the mediation of my dragoman. I therefore consented to his entering the village with his army. He promised that no harm would be done to anyone in Beit Jala either by him or by any of his followers; that he would spend that night there and leave the next day; that he would not get any of our Christians involved in the war, which was an affair between Muslims. Once he had made these promises, I told him, "Our village is open to all those who come in peace to find hospitality here. You and your people are welcome. But remember your promises: if you do not, you will see what will happen." He and his rabble then entered the village. The rain was still pouring down, and water was flowing down the narrow, muddy streets. I went to get changed, and then visited him once more to remind him of my conditions, and to receive his promises again, this time in a more relaxed atmosphere. He asked me to sit next to him on a cushion placed on a carpet, and he promised everything I asked of him... He is a man born to command... courteous and civilized if we bear in mind the tribe he belongs to. We have had no complaints to make about him since he has been their chief. Before I took my leave of him, he said, "You see how I am lodged among peasants, who have no clean linen. Could you let me have a bed?" I sent him a mattress, a blanket and a holster.. "(14).
The following morning Abu Gosh kept his promises and left Beit Jala. Before his departure Fr. Moretain came to thank him. Some of followers in Beit Jala accompanied him of their own free will, but out of respect for Fr. Moretain, he made sure they were not placed in the front line.
"Once Abu Gosh had left, I received a delegation from the village, consisting of almost all the leaders, and the four schismatic priests. They came to thank me for all I had done for the village and commend me for my exploits against Abu Gosh... They maintained that without me and the influence of the Patriarch ... there would be nothing left in the village: oil, grain and weapons would all have been pillaged. There were a number of recent examples to confirm this. Not the slightest harm had been done to anyone. Lodging and food had been given to some hundreds of Arabs for the night, in accordance with Eastern laws of hospitality, and that was an end to the matter. Everyone was overjoyed...
This was the first and greatest of my exploits against the A chieftains. It opened the way for others, less spectacular, but no less ful (is)."