Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Christianity and the Middle East: Damaged Virgin Mary Statue a Symbol for Holy Land Christians under Attack

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Christianity and the Middle East: Damaged Virgin Mary Statue a Symbol for Holy Land Christians under Attack

Article excerpt

Fred Strickert, professor of religion at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, is co-author with Mitri Raheb of Bethlehem 2000: Then and Now (available from the AET Book Club).

A statue of the Virgin Mary stands atop the chapel of the Holy Family Hospital and Orphanage in Bethlehem. The statue was hit by shrapnel when a shell from an Israeli tank slammed into the church on March 14.

Adamaged statue of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem symbolizes the pain felt by Palestinian Christians from Israel's recent military incursions into West Bank cities and towns.

During a pre-dawn attack on March 14, an Israeli Merkava-3 tank fired at the statue from close range--reportedly only 50 yards--shattering the nose and slicing off the hands. The statue stands upon the roof of the Holy Family Church to adjacent to a flag of the Vatican and a Christmas star at the center of a compound that also houses a maternity hospital and an orphanage.

Even though gunfights and shelling raged in the streets outside the compound, causing a "bowling-ball" sized hole in an outer wall of the 19th century church, no one in the compound was injured.

There were 15 patients in the hospital at the time, seven of whom recently had given birth. According to Associated Press writer Ibrahim Hazboun, the nun in charge, Sister Sophia, rushed the patients into a safer part of the compound while gunfire continued outside. Among them was Jihad Quraka, who expressed her feeling of terror at hearing gunfire while she was in labor. Her husband, Mohammed, who was able to remain at her side, remarked about their new son, Ali, "We are living in a very difficult situation, but there is always hope. I have a new baby now."

This is not the first time the Holy Family Hospital has come under fire. Last Oct. 22, Rev. Sandra Olewine, the United Methodist ecumenical liaison in Jerusalem, reported that three rockets had hit the hospital, inflicting damage to the intensive care room, laundry room, and another building in the compound. At the time, Sister Sophia noted that the 50 children residing in the orphanage were traumatized, experiencing vomiting and hysteria, crying, "Why? Why? What is this?" One of the sisters told the children, "Not to worry, it is only a wedding between Sharon and Arafat."

According to newspaper accounts, IDF spokespersons have stated that such strikes against church compounds are against Israeli military policy. Nevertheless, the direct hits on the statue seem to argue against the likelihood of accidental hits as well as the common explanation of self-defense.

The statue of the Virgin Mary stands as an important symbol to the Palestinian people. The 1st century virgin mother facing the hardship of childbirth under Roman military occupation and impending refugee status speaks to today's Palestinian mothers and children in the midst of conflict--from the newborn babies dying at IDF checkpoints to the pregnant women en route to hospitals shot by Israeli snipers. The statue's outstretched arms symbolize a place of refuge for mothers in need; wounded, it betrays the vulnerability of Christian institutions in the face of the violence of occupation.

The damaged statue confirms a pattern evident in IDF incursions over the past year. In October, snipers targeted Bethlehem's centuries-old Church of the Nativity, causing damage to the building and tragically killing 17-year old acolyte Johnny Taljieh after Saturday evening mass (see "Centuries-Long Immunity From Attacks on Bethlehem's Church of Nativity Ends," December 2001 Washington Report, p. …

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