Last Chris­tians of Is­raeli-con­trolled Golan Heights

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

When about a hun­dred Arab Chris­tians re­cently at­tended the small church at Ein Qiniye in the Is­raeli-oc­cu­pied Golan Heights, it was a turnout not of­ten seen there. Few Chris­tians re­main on the Is­raeli-held part of the strate­gic plateau north­east of the Sea of Galilee, where Chris­tians be­lieve Jesus walked on wa­ter. Only two iso­lated Chris­tian fam­i­lies still live there, ac­cord­ing to the fam­i­lies them­selves and a re­searcher on the Golan Heights.

Their churches open only on rare oc­ca­sions, such as for a re­cent sol­i­dar­ity visit by Arabs from the Is­raeli cities of Haifa and Nazareth. With­out such vis­its and the per­se­ver­ance of the Adibs, the last Chris­tian fam­ily left in the vil­lage of Ein Qiniye, the Ma­ronite church perched on hills over­look­ing the Sea of Galilee would have faded into obliv­ion. Is­rael seized 1,200 square kilo­me­ters of the Golan from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later an­nexed it in a move never rec­og­nized by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

Be­fore that, says As­saf Adib, 57, about 600 Chris­tians and 300 Druze lived in the vil­lage but with the out­break of war most of the Chris­tians fled west­ward to the dis­puted She­baa Farms area along the Le­banon-Is­rael cease­fire line. In Ein Qiniye to­day, he says there are 1,800 Druze-an off­shoot of Shi­ite Is­lam-while the Chris­tian pop­u­la­tion has shrunk to the 12 mem­bers of his fam­ily. Some of his close rel­a­tives moved a short dis­tance north to the Golan Druze town of Ma­j­dal Shams, Adib said. “My father and my un­cle fol­lowed the Druze fam­i­lies and went to take refuge in Ma­j­dal Shams.” They were al­lowed to re­turn to Ein Qiniye with the Druze af­ter the war but the other Chris­tians were un­able to get back home and were left in Syria or Le­banon. Around 510 square kilo­me­ters of the Golan re­main to­day un­der Syr­ian con­trol. Syria and Is­rael are still tech­ni­cally at war, al­though the border was largely quiet for decades un­til 2011, when the Syr­ian civil war broke out. Suriya Sa­maane, 72, is a mem­ber of an Is­raeli Chris­tian sup­port group from the Galilee which makes oc­ca­sional sol­i­dar­ity vis­its to keep the lit­tle hill­top church go­ing. “We come from Nazareth to sup­port the Chris­tian pres­ence in Ein Qiniye,” she said out­side the build­ing af­ter at­tend­ing mass.

‘No fu­ture’ for Arabs

In Ma­j­dal Shams, Or­tho­dox Chris­tian Ibrahim Nas­ral­lah, 80, re­calls the time be­fore the war, when “no one spoke of Chris­tian, Mus­lim or Druze: we were all Arabs first and then Syr­i­ans,” he told AFP. “Thirdly we were Chris­tians.” “Be­fore 1967 Chris­tians left Ma­j­dal Shams to work in Quneitra,” he said, re­fer­ring to the nearby once-pros­per­ous pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal in south­ern Syria now torn apart by the civil war there.

“The most ed­u­cated went to Da­m­as­cus,” Nas­ral­lah said, adding that two of his chil­dren have re­set­tled in­side Syria but he will re­main where he is. “Out­side Ma­j­dal Shams I am like a fish out of wa­ter. I will not leave un­til I die.” Be­fore the oc­cu­pa­tion, Chris­tians ac­counted for 12 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion of the Golan, which then had 340 vil­lages and 150,000 in­hab­i­tants, ac­cord­ing to re­searcher Sal­mane Fakhred­dine. To­day, about 22,000 Syr­ian Druze live on the Is­raeli-con­trolled side of the Heights as well as 25,000 Is­raeli set­tlers who moved in af­ter 1967. In Ma­j­dal Shams, the only church is closed and has long since fallen into dis­re­pair.

“When my father died the priest had to come to our house to per­form the fu­neral mass,” Nas­ral­lah said. He was then laid to rest in a ceme­tery shared by Druze and Chris­tians among pine trees. “In 1984 when we had my son Iyass bap­tized we got the Is­raeli author­i­ties to open the Ba­nias church,” south of Ma­j­dal Shams, Nas­ral­lah added. Iyass worked in Haifa for a time but even­tu­ally moved to Ger­many. Back home for a visit, he is con­vinced he made the right de­ci­sion in leav­ing the re­gion. “There is no fu­ture for the Arabs,” he said. — AFP

QATZRIN, Is­rael: A gen­eral view shows the Jewish set­tle­ment of Qatzrin in the Is­raeli oc­cu­pied Golan Heights as they cel­e­brate the 40th an­niver­sary of its cre­ation with a visit from the Prime Min­is­ter on June 28, 2017. — AFP

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