The Road to Emmaus:

When Christianity disappears in the land where the faith began

Father Salem Yunis, from Aleppo, Syria(R), and Father Oscar Rodriguez, from El Salvador (L), stand on the remnants of an ancient Roman road in Emmaus, which today lies in West Bank territory. (Photo by Heidi Levine/GroundTruth)

Charles M. Sennott

In the New Testament’s Gospel According to Luke, on the Monday after the Resurrection, the disciples of Jesus began to flee Jerusalem, fearing that if their savior was crucified that the Roman authorities would be searching for them as well.

Two of the disciples set out on “the road to Emmaus” where they met a man along the way. It was Jesus, the Gospel says, but the disciples were unable to recognize him. He turned into the dusk to go further on the road. But, Luke writes, “They urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.’ So he went into stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.”

EL QUBEIBEH, West Bank – The biblical “road to Emmaus” is today a dirt path marked by the remnants of ancient Roman paving stones in this Palestinian village. El Qubeibeh, as Emmaus is today known, is nestled into a terraced West Bank hillside about eight miles northwest of the modern boundaries of Jerusalem.

And it is here on the Monday after Easter that Palestinian Christians gather to remember the biblical parable and to break bread as the disciples did with Jesus. The annual festival takes place alongside the Franciscan church here that enshrines the stone remains of what tradition holds was the home where the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples, Cleopas and Simeon, and then disappeared.

A painting depicts Jesus breaking bread with the disciples Simeon and Cleopias in the biblical town of Emmaus, in the Franciscan Church of Emmaus. El Qubeibeh, April 15, 2017. (Photo by Heidi Levine/GroundTruth)

A painting depicts Jesus breaking bread with the disciples Simeon and Cleopias in the biblical town of Emmaus, in the Franciscan Church of Emmaus. El Qubeibeh, April 15, 2017. (Photo by Heidi Levine/GroundTruth)

And these days it feels as if the living Christian community itself is disappearing in the land where the faith began, a sad reality that seems to give the biblical story of “the road to Emmaus,” a powerful, modern resonance.

“We’re the forgotten Christians.”

Jennifer Attalah

Christian resident of Ramallah

On the Saturday before the festival, the cavernous church was empty and the only sign of life were two priests, Salem Yunis and Oscar Rodriguez, of the Roman Catholic Order of the Franciscans. These two priests, along with three nuns, are the only residents of the sprawling religious compound, which was once a seminary packed with a new generation of priests. Today the dormitories are empty and there are no priests here in the process of ordination.

Fathers Yunis and Rodriguez, in the signature brown robes of the Franciscan order, which is assigned by the Catholic Church as the “Custody of the Holy Land,” sat in the wooden pews of the church that can hold approximately 500 worshipers. They explained that these days the daily mass was celebrated by only the five of them, and that the living community of faith in this Palestinian village had virtually disappeared. They said there was only one Christian family left in Emmaus, or El Qubeibeh, and in all of the five surrounding villages.

The name was Quliyoba and their family home was just a few hundred yards up the hill from the church. The home had several abandoned cars parked out front and looked dark inside. Muslim neighbors explained that the home belonged to Victor Quliyoba and that he and his cousin, Anton Quliyoba Yoakim, were the last two Christians remaining. They were pretty sure, they said, that Anton had passed away seven years earlier of a heart attack. They pointed us to a Christian cemetery, which was neglected but had several fresh graves. There was no headstone for Anton.

Christian tombstones are seen in a neglected Christian cemetery in Palestinian West Bank village of Emmaus. (Photo by Heidi Levine/GroundTruth)

Christian tombstones are seen in a neglected Christian cemetery in Palestinian West Bank village of Emmaus. (Photo by Heidi Levine/GroundTruth)

Father Yunis, 45, who hails from Syria, said he had been stationed at the church for four years and watched with great sadness as the parish community has been left hanging by a thread due to a long history of migration of Palestinian Christians mostly to the West. The migration has been precipitated in recent years, he said, by the Israeli occupation and the construction of a security wall that now cuts this community off from Jerusalem and has crippled the local economy.

Father Yunis lamented the plight of Christians not only in Israel and Palestine but across the Middle East, particularly in his native Syria where the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has reportedly rampaged Christian villages, raped Christian women and executed Christians who refused to convert to Islam. The same has happened in Iraq, particularly in the northern city of Mosul, which had a long and rich Christian culture, before ISIS captured the city in August of 2014. On the day ISIS seized the town, more than 125,000 Christians from Mosul and the province of Nineveh in northern Iraq fled their homes to refugee camps. Those who failed to get out have been terrorized and many have been executed, according to human rights reports.

“It is unbearably sad to see our communities fading, Christians leaving their homes and their countries,” said Father Yunis, who is from a village near the bombed-out city of Aleppo.

He hastened to add that Muslims suffer from the war alongside Christians, of course, and that despite ISIS’s attempts to divide Christians and Muslims, that Christians have not lost their resolve to stay in solidarity with all Syrians suffering through the civil war.

“It will not weaken our faith, but the actions of these extremists and the disappearance of Christianity in the land where the faith began will weaken humanity,” he said. “And that is something all of us, Christians, Muslims and Jews, should be concerned about.”

christian clergymen participate in a mass at the Franciscan Church of Emmaus. They celebrated celebrating biblical story of The Road to Emmaus in the West Bank village of El Qubeibeh on Monday, April 17, 2017. (Photo by Heidi Levine/GroundTruth)

Christian clergymen participate in a mass at the Franciscan Church of Emmaus. They celebrated the biblical story of The Road to Emmaus in the West Bank village of El Qubeibeh on Monday, April 17, 2017. (Photo by Heidi Levine/GroundTruth)

Christians, as a minority faith in the Arab world, say they feel they are being specifically targeted these days. A stark example was the bombing of two Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday, which killed 45 Christians as they celebrated Mass. And so amid the violence, the bloodshed and the economic hardship that come with the terrain, the Christian presence is diminishing as many Christians find a way to migrate to the West.

In Syria and Iraq, Christian minority communities have been brutalized, as one Franciscan priest, Father Sebastian Eclimes, who was born and raised in Mosul and has served in the Holy Land for the last 10 years, said, “For Christians of the Middle East, it’s over. I say that with a broken heart, but it is true.”

In other countries like Lebanon and Jordan, decades of war and instability in the region created a steady flow of migrants to Europe and America and left the communities shrinking year after year. Because they are often affiliated with Western churches and religious institutions, the migration patterns out of the Middle East are more established and allow them to more readily find an exit.

As a result, an exodus is underway. One hundred years ago, according to Ottoman-era census data, Christians represented more than 20 percent of the total population of the Middle East. Today that number has shrunk to less than 4 percent, according to experts seeking to track the migration in a region where census data is nonexistent.

Christian clergymen hand out rolls of bread to worshippers, a tradition in Christian Masses. Over a thousand Christians from the West Bank, Jerusalem and other countries attended the Mass at the Franciscan Church of Emmaus in the West Bank village of El Qubeibehon on Monday, April 17, 2017. (Photo by Heidi Levine/GroundTruth)

Christian clergymen hand out rolls of bread to worshippers, a tradition in Christian Masses. Over a thousand Christians from the West Bank, Jerusalem and other countries attended the Mass at the Franciscan Church of Emmaus in the West Bank village of El Qubeibehon on Monday, April 17, 2017. (Photo by Heidi Levine/GroundTruth)

But nowhere is the exodus more apparent than in Israel and Palestine, where the percentage of Christians has dwindled to what even church officials here concede is estimated to be less than 1 percent, down from 13 percent of the total population a century ago. This diminishing presence has become so thin that Father Louis Hazboun, a professor at Bethlehem University and a parish priest, said there are now fears that the living community of Christians is on the verge of disappearing in the land where the faith began. Or, as this reality of less than 1 percent of the total population is expressed in demographic terms, the Palestinian Christian population would be “statistically unrecognizable.”

Hazboun pointed out that there are a number of factors contributing to the diminishing Christian presence in Israel and Palestine: 1) The population that has stayed is migrating at a higher rate than the larger Muslim and Jewish majorities around them. 2) Those few who do stay are on average having half as many children. 3) The Christian demographic group is twice as old and dying off at an alarming rate.

Consider the total Christian population of what is today Israel and the Palestinian territories was 145,000 under the British mandate after World War I. The most recent official count of the Christian population is 133,000, based on 1995 Israeli census data and estimates based on parish records. But demographers say the best way to understand this data is to look at what the population would be if there was no migration and the population grew at a steady rate of 2 percent (which is lower than the growth rate of Muslims and Jews.) By this math, the total Christian Palestinian population should be over 420,000 today. That means nearly 300,000 Palestinian Christians are living in the diaspora, or almost three times more live outside their native land than actually today live in Israel and Palestine.

The hardest part in watching this exodus unfold, many Palestinian Christians say, is that so few Western Christians seem to care, or to really even contemplate that the Palestinian population includes Christians. Despite the gospels and the stained glass windows in churches all across America and Europe that depict Bethlehem and Nazareth and Jerusalem, Western Christians fail to recognize that the local Christians here in Israel and Palestine are the continuum of the faith. The towns in the bible, like Bethlehem and Emmaus, are actually Palestinian towns in the West Bank that suffer under Israeli occupation.

An old stone church is all that is left standing in the Palestinian village of Iqrit, which was destroyed by Israeli soldiers in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Christian residents were forced out, but still attend Christmas services in the old church. Iqrit, 1998 (Photo by Heidi Levine/ GroundTruth)

An old stone church is all that is left standing in the Palestinian village of Iqrit, which was destroyed by Israeli soldiers in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Christian residents were forced out, but still attend Christmas services in the old church. Iqrit, 1998 (Photo by Heidi Levine/ GroundTruth)

A quiet expression of this oversight of the Palestinian Christian reality played out on Easter Sunday at a crowded Mass in English at the Cathedral of Notre Dame just across from the Old City in Jerusalem. At the end of the service, the presiding priest, Father Juan Maria Solana of Mexico, asked the parish to complete an informal survey of where the congregants were from.

People raised their hands from the pews to say the names of their native countries, including the Philippines, Ireland, Canada, Australia, the Congo and beyond. Father Solana was repeating the name of the country from the altar and keeping count of a total of 40 names of countries. A woman in a central pew raised her hand and shouted several times, “Palestine! We are from Palestine!”

But Palestine went unrecorded by the priest. She sat back down in silence as the mass was ended.

Jennifer Attallah, 37, lives in the West Bank town of Ramallah, and is a member of the Melkite (Greek) Catholic Church, which is in union with the Roman Catholic Church. She explained that she grew up in Atlanta but that her great-grandfather hailed from the Palestinian village of Iqrit, which was destroyed by Israeli soldiers in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. All that is left standing in the village of Iqrit, near the Sea of Galilee, is the remnant of the stone church where her ancestors used to pray. She came back in 2003 to live and work and identifies herself as Palestinian-American-Christian.

After the Mass, she spoke with Father Solana and respectfully pointed out that she had tried to offer Palestine as one of the countries in the survey. The priest replied, “You should have spoken up!”

“I spoke loudly and clearly, Father. Happy Easter,” she said, and walked away.

Palestinian Christians worship at the Franciscan Church of Emmaus during a Mass that celebrates the biblical story of The Road to Emmaus, in the West Bank village of El Qubeibeh on Monday, April 17, 2017. (Photo by Heidi Levine/The GroundTruth Project)

Palestinian Christians worship at the Franciscan Church of Emmaus during a Mass that celebrates the biblical story of The Road to Emmaus, in the West Bank village of El Qubeibeh on Monday, April 17, 2017. (Photo by Heidi Levine/GroundTruth)

Afterwards, she was asked about the oversight.

“We’re the forgotten Christians. I think he could have heard me, if he wanted to. It’s just that we are easily overlooked. Somehow Western Christians overlook that the faith is from here, that the living community here is Palestinian,” said Attallah.

“It really bothers me, actually,” she added, “So I am going to keep speaking up about it and making sure that more people understand that we are here, that we are keeping the sacred alive as a living community here.”

On the Monday after Easter, the road into Emmaus was packed with tour buses carrying hundreds of Palestinian Christians and scores of Western Christian pilgrims to the Church of Emmaus for the feast that commemorates the biblical miracle of Jesus appearing to the disciples. The pews were packed and the Palestinian military band was there, along with Palestinian Authority officials, and armed Palestinian police ringed the church. Fathers Yunis and Rodriguez were there early setting up chairs and preparing for the traditional Mass and the ceremonial breaking of bread that is especially baked in Bethlehem.

The Quliyoba family, the last remaining Christians in the village, was expected to attend. Victor Quliyoba planned to be there, but was not to be seen. And Anton Quliyoba Yoakim was very much alive, despite the rumors of his death by his Muslim neighbors. He had moved to the Old City in Jerusalem some years back because traveling to his work as a taxi driver from the village of El Qubeibeh was too difficult and dangerous after the construction of the Israeli security wall and the military checkpoints.

Anton Qulibyoba Yoakim, 63, (right) kisses his friend Baker Ma'Ali, 63, at the Franciscan Church of Emmaus in the West Bank village of El Qubeibeh on Monday, April 17, 2017. Anton recalled how they both breastfed from each other's mother when they were babies. (Photo by Heidi Levine/GroundTruth)

Anton Qulibyoba Yoakim, 63, (right) kisses his friend Baker Ma’Ali, 63, at the Franciscan Church of Emmaus in the West Bank village of El Qubeibeh on Monday, April 17, 2017. Anton recalled how they both breastfed from each other’s mother when they were babies. (Photo by Heidi Levine/GroundTruth)

Anton, 63, arrived by car from Jerusalem with his wife, Lucy, and several of his five children and four grandchildren, and said he never misses this day to return to his hometown because, “This is the day the village comes alive for us.”

As he entered the church compound, a group of men his age surrounded him, hugging him and kissing both cheeks, as is the Arab custom. Baker Ma’ali, a well-dressed man with a warm smile, wrapped his arms around Anton, “Where have you been, man?”

Anton explained that Baker was his best friend since they were born at the same time in neighboring homes: “We shared our mothers’ milk. We are brothers. We are one family from our birth to right now.”

Baker said, “I knew my friend Anton would be here, and so we come to honor his holiday. It is our tradition. Their feast is our feast. I don’t think I have ever missed the breaking of the bread here on the feast of Emmaus in my 63 years.”

Anton Qulibyoba Yoakim (left) with his wife, son and granddaughters, as they hold a platter of Maamoul cookies, traditionally served in the Easter holiday. Their family was among the last remaining Christians in the biblical village of Emmaus, where Anton grew up. He now lives with his family in the old City of Jerusalem. (Photo by Heidi Levine/ GroundTruth)

Anton Qulibyoba Yoakim (left) with his wife, son and granddaughters, as they hold a platter of Maamoul cookies, traditionally served in the Easter holiday. Their family was among the last remaining Christians in the biblical village of Emmaus, where Anton grew up. He now lives with his family in the old City of Jerusalem. (Photo by Heidi Levine/ GroundTruth).

Baker was asked about the other Christian families that had left the town and what would happen if their village no longer had any living Christian: “We lose something if we lose our Christians brothers. They are part of our lives. They are part of our culture. And we are less without them.”

But the fact is that this town and many others in the West Bank and in Israel are indeed losing this interfaith piece of their culture.

Anton explained that he was the oldest of six siblings, and the only one who did not emigrate to California. His entire immediate family had moved to America over the years to flee the decades of violence, insecurity and struggling economy of life under occupation. They often urge him to join them. But he was holding on, he said.

“My life is here. My home. My work. My sons and grandchildren. What is there in America? Americans just working, working, working all the time. No family. No culture. No community. Not for me,” said Anton confidently.

There to greet him were the priests, Yunis and Rodriguez, who were thrilled to see him and who seemed to be almost unconsciously echoing the disciples’ words to Jesus here on the road to Emmaus when they implored him not to break his ties to the village, and to “stay with us,” as Father Yunis put it. And they broke bread in keeping with the tradition of the day.

Yunis said, “If the Quliyoba family does move on, life will continue, of course. But the Christian community will be gone. Then the churches like this one in the Holy Land become only symbols, like museums of faith but without the living community of faith. That would be very sad for all of us.”

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