Friday, 13 November 2009

Incense, icons and co-operation

The Sunday service in Tiberias is an evening one, so it allows me the opportunity to worship in other churches in the morning. Last week I went along with a friend, Margaret, to her Greek Orthodox church of St George in Sakhnin, a large Arab town, 45 minutes drive from Tiberias. Sakhnin is famous in Israel for its football team, who are the only Arab team in the Israeli premier league (There is a massive stadium, built with money from Qatar rather than Israeli government cash).

The orthodox service is very different from your run-of-the-mill Scottish service. Like in many churches I was used to in Africa, the women sat in a different part of the church from the men. Every space on the walls was covered with icons, and there was wonderful chanting throughout. To me, there was a real sense of the presence of God. The wonderful thing was that all generations were present at worship, with the young especially participating in the processions, etc. A strong sense of identity, I imagine.

After the service was over, the priest, Abuna Saleh Khouri, invited us to his home for lunch (the man sitting next to me had also invited me – people are very hospitable). The priesthood of the Orthodox church in Sakhnin is a family affair, with Abuna Saleh the 6th generation of his family to be priest there. He had been a teacher before his father retired. Interestingly, Abuna Saleh’s son, Fadi, was there, leading the choir, and I wondered if he would also one day be the priest? He has just returned from a 3 year course in Pennsylvania and is an optometrist in Tiberias, travelling from Sakhnin each day.

Sakhnin is a predominately Moslem town, with less than 2000 Christians (Orthodox and Catholic) out of a population of 27,000. However, there seems to be a sense of togetherness, which isn’t always the case in the villages of Galilee, with Moslems contributing towards the massive new church the Orthodox are building, while the Christians bought flowers and organised a feast for those coming out of the mosque at the end of Ramadan. They seem to take a pride in working together, and the priest is shown the same respect as the imam from the mosque.

After lunch, we went back into the church, where the Sunday School was on – not so many children, as families are still involved in the olive harvest, but maybe about 20.

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