MILFORD, Conn. — Bethlehem is safer than it has been in years. But many pilgrims don't realize that.
They're swayed by recent years' news reports focusing on trouble in the little town where Christ was born.
If the world is avoiding Bethlehem, Mudar Qumsieh is taking Bethlehem to the world.
He's a Bethlehem-born 22-year-old Eastern-rite Catholic who came to study in the United States four years ago. Last July, he hatched a plan to sell Holy Land crafts in the United States in order to help artisans make up for lost revenue as pilgrims grew scarce. The result was Bethlehem Christians, Inc.
Carving olive wood is a generations-old custom for Palestinian Christian families to support themselves.
Qumsieh has been visiting parishes in the United States to describe the plight of his countrymen and to sell their olive wood rosaries, crucifixes, Nativity scenes and images of Jesus, Mary and the Holy Family.
“Many, many Christians carve the olivewood,” said Qumsieh, who works from Milford, Conn., and is assisted by his two brothers and a cousin. “This is one of the prime ways of making a living. From generation to generation, people kept carving.”
In fact, the Palestinian Christians have been carrying on this craft since the fourth century. “We believe the olivewood is a very blessed tree,” he explained. “Jesus prayed by one of these trees.”
The difficulties in the Holy Land have forced many people to emigrate.
“This is a crisis that the church is facing,” said Franciscan Father Peter Vasko, president of the Jerusalem-based Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land. Citing 55% unemployment, he said: “If they can't work and can't get an education, they can't exist, so they're thinking of going to the United States, Canada and South America.”
Qumsieh wants to help Christians in the Holy Land earn a living and maintain their presence there. He noted that 30 years ago, approximately 20% of the population was Christian. Today, they're a mere 1.8% of the population.
Although Father Vasko isn't familiar with Bethlehem Christians, he said, “If it's an association that's helping many, many people in Bethlehem, then it's a great service because it's giving jobs in Bethlehem at this time. There are over 100 small factories in Bethlehem that do olive wood carvings. If they have a vehicle such as this, this gives work to a lot of young people who would (otherwise) be out of work.”
There's another rub for the olive wood artisans in Bethlehem. They can't bring their carvings to Jerusalem, a short hop away.
Palestinians are “like virtual prisoners in this town of 72,000 people,” Father Vasko noted. “They're surrounded, they're isolated, they can't leave the town to go to Jerusalem. It's very frustrating to the Palestinian Christians … and a lot of these families trace their roots back 1200 years.
“We need more support from the Christians around the world and … from the Catholics in the United States.”
Qumsieh is finding “people are very receptive when we tell them that your brothers and sisters are struggling in the land of Christ, and you ought to help them,” he said. “They leave the parish with different ideas. Before, they didn't even know there are Christians living in the Holy Land.”
One of Qumsieh's visits was to Immaculate Conception Church in Hampton, Va., whose pastor, Father Robert French, knew exactly what he was talking about.
“I spent a sabbatical year in Israel and have been back many times. Bethlehem, even in peaceful times, is in need of a lot of help,” Father French said. “Now, dear God, they must be in dire straits. So his work here sure gives them hope somebody has remembered them.”
Father David Borino, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Waterbury, Conn., which hosted Qumsieh in October, noted that some parishioners “were very impressed with him being a young man in his 20's willing to stand up and share his experiences, reminding us we are a united Church, one body in Christ.”
Qumsieh pointed out that 60 to 70% of the money from sales (only operating costs are deducted) is sent back to the carvers. He takes no salary himself.
As for the carvers, “We have many suppliers back home,” he said. “We're trying to deal with all of them, not just a few, so we can help as many as we can.”
Father Majdi Siryani, legal advisor to the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, doesn't know Qumsieh. But, he said, “His uncle Samir, however, owner of Al Mahed station, is very well known to us at the Patriarchate and his station is highly recommended.”
He refers to Al-Mahed (Nativity) TV, the only Christian station in the Holy Land. It broadcasts Sunday Mass and programs to keep the Christians rooted in the land and to spread the Christian message.
Samir Mudar inspired his nephew's efforts when the young man asked his advice about starting Bethlehem Christians. Now Bethlehem Christians is also helping the station with all proceeds from a DVD the elder Qumsieh made called “A Tour in the Holy Land.”
He said, though, that the only such program linked directly to the Church is the one run by the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation called “Holy Land Gifts.” Rateb Rabie, the foundation's president, said the organization is endorsed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and works with the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem. It has offices in Bethesda, Md.
As one way to help Palestinian Christians, the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation sells some olive wood items through churches and Christian volunteers in places like Washington, Detroit and San Antonio. People can buy some products online. And the foundation sells the carvings to churches on a consignment basis.
“This is a Christian tradition,” Rabie stressed. “We want to help maintain that vital Christian tradition in the Holy Land. Only Christian crafters carve the olive wood.”
Ultimately, Qumsieh wants himself put out of business.
“I would love to see more Christians going back to the Holy Land,” he said. “I hope the situation would get better so we wouldn't need to do this work anymore because people would be doing their selling back home. We all look for peace and stability in the Holy Land.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from