Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

"We Need Justice," Says Father Yousef Sa'adah, a Melkite Priest in Nablus

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

"We Need Justice," Says Father Yousef Sa'adah, a Melkite Priest in Nablus

Article excerpt

AT SUNSET A bone-chilling cold descended on Nablus, even inside the home of Father Yousef Sa'adah, the 67-year-old priest of St. John's Melkite Church. For an hour the priest had been describing the difficulties faced by the city's Christian community. His words, like the cold, made comfort impossible.

Among the examples he cited: "One family had no meat for their children for one month. Some cannot pay for electricity or rent. Some cannot afford medical care, and so they die."

The longer Father Yousef spoke, the more he looked exhausted, almost shell-shocked. It was as if relating these events made them real all over again, and it was a weight the aging priest could hardly bear.

The story that most visibly disturbed him, however, concerned an eight-year-old girl and her mother. At 10 o'clock one morning, Father Yousef recalled, a woman appeared at his office. In tears, she told him that as her daughter was getting ready for school that morning she had asked, "Mother, what is the meaning of life?" Quickly offering her own answer to the rhetorical question, the daughter matter-of-factly stated, "It is better to be dead than alive."

And then she left for school.

Nablus-wracked by massive unemployment, ringed by notorious IDF checkpoints, the target of regular Israeli raids and home to an escalating law-and-order problem-is no easy place to raise a child. And now, sitting before the priest, the desperate mother begged for help. What could she do for her daughter?

"When your daughter returns from school at 2 p.m.," the priest told her, "kiss her, hug her, and give her something sweet to eat and drink."

"Our children cannot dress as well as the children in Jordan, England, or America," Father Yousef explained, reflecting on the story he had just shared. "We have no nice places to go-a park, a zoo-like what we see on television. And at night we often cannot sleep because of soldiers, turning tanks, shooting, dead neighbors."

Like the cold, a sense of powerlessness clung to the living room as Father Yousef poured another cup of tea. On the walls hung a large cross-stitch of the Last Supper, a poster of Mary and an infant Jesus, and a sign that read, "God Bless our Home."

These things did not seem out of place. But on the television screen, tuned to the Christian satellite station Noursat, a Maronite children's choir at a church in Beirut was belting out songs. This created a sense of dissonance.

The scene in Beirut-of vibrant singing, fashionable clothes, a packed sanctuary-was beautiful. But it also brought home all that the Christian community in Nablus is missing, all that it has lost. In 1967, an estimated 3,500 Christians called Nablus home; today that number has dropped to 650.

"Now I've finished my life," said Father Yousef. "I speak for my people, not for myself. We need justice. Without justice, how can we live?"

Father Yousef didn't say much about himself at all, until asked. Born in Haifa in 1940, he referred to his early childhood as "a good situation, I remember the sea." All that changed in 1948, when his family, like so many other Palestinians, fled the new state of Israel. For the next four years the family lived in a cave in Rafidiya, on the edge of Nablus, then spent another four years in a refugee camp. "We received one pair of trousers per year from the U.N.," Father Yousef recalled. "When that one pair was being washed, I stayed inside. …

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