Reinterpreting the Crusades

By Jose Leyva

Nine centuries ago, the Knights of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem defended the place where Jesus Christ was crucified and buried, fighting the Muslims with their swords, sometimes dying in the battle. Today, however, the order is engaged in a very different kind of effort: fighting to stem the flow of Christians out of Israel.

In the last two years, the society of the knights in New York City raised more than $15 million to support the few remaining Christian communities in the Holy Land. The money goes to monastic orders in Jerusalem such as the Franciscans or the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, as well as housing and schools for the Christian population in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

“Some people envision that some day there will be no followers of Christ in the Holy Land,” said Joseph Spinnato, who is part of the Grand Magisterium, the highest governing body of the order in Rome, directly supervised by the Pope. “That is something that we just don’t want to see”.

The order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem was founded in the 12th Century during the Crusades to protect the Christian presence in Jerusalem, against Muslim attacks. The knights wore a uniform comprised of a white, woolen full cape and a black velvet hat while on duty. The cape had the Jerusalem cross –the group’s insignia– attached to the left breast, below the shoulder. Currently, the membership of the group has expanded to women and members only wear their uniforms during the investiture ceremony.

Every year, around 100 new members join the order in the New York region.

The Roman Catholic order, consisting of 10,000 knights and ladies worldwide, has been trying to reinterpret the ideals of the Crusades from which it originated. The group’s original mission of preserving the faith in the Middle East and defending the Catholic Church in the Holy Land remains the same, but they have changed their approach. Now, even Muslim communities are benefiting from their actions.

“It is very difficult for the Christians to live, to work in Israel.” said Spinnato in an interview in the headquarters of the Hotel Association of New York, where he serves as chief executive officer and president. “The young people leave, the old people stay. And you have families disrupted and separated.”

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Christians constitute 2 percent of the population in the country, and over the past decade their communities have been slowly shrinking. Arab Christians have been migrating to Europe or the United States, plus they tend to have smaller families than other minorities.

On average, 3.5 persons compose Christian households. A Jewish household contains 3.1 people and the Muslim 5.2, according the Central Bureau of Statistics.

“Christian communities are getting smaller, specially the Catholic communities because most of them go to the west and don’t come back.” said Jacob Salami, the director of the Department of Non-Jewish Affairs at the Ministry of the Interior of Israel. “They get married later and don’t have a lot of children.”

Through fundraising events, pilgrimages, and a yearly $400 annual fee, the 1,200 knights and ladies of the Holy Sepulchre in the Eastern Lieutenancy (which includes New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut) bought a plot of land for 400 Catholic families that were relocating to a small town near Amman, Jordan’s capital.

The order also helped refurbishing the School of the Latin Convent, in Jaffa Nazareth, one of the 44 Catholic schools in Israel, located in a historically Christian enclave, but now predominantly populated by Muslims.

The School of the Latin Convent is about 8 miles from the Basilica of the Annunciation, in Nazareth, northern Israel. Nazareth is one of the holiest sites in the Roman Catholic tradition; Catholics believe that in this city the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would miraculously conceive Jesus, the Son of God.

“We speak the same language, we share the same past and the same future. We are the same people.” said Father Louis Hazboun, the director of the school, during an interview in his office, just across the main hallway of the Latin Convent.

The school has 620 Arab students from kindergarten through junior high school. Two thirds of the children are Muslims, and the rest are Protestant, Greek-Orthodox or Catholic.

“We live together, so we have to include them in our activities, and they also include us in theirs.” said Hazboun, who is also an active member of several interfaith dialogue groups in Israel.

A concrete soccer field serves as the school’s main plaza, separating the classrooms from the school’s church and a smaller chapel. The sounds of the church bells sometimes mix with the Muslim call of prayer while the kids eat lunch, run or play soccer in the main plaza during the noon break. It is impossible to differentiate the kids’ religions. Nevertheless, a crucifix hanging above every classroom’s blackboard, nuns in habits and priests wearing white neck shirts along the hallways and in the administrative offices are a reminder of the school’s origin.

“We know who is Muslim, who is Latin, who is Greek, but it doesn’t matter, we are together all the time, inside the school and outside the school also,” said Jonas, a 12- year-old Catholic student, living just a few blocks from the Latin Convent.

Although the students share most of the curricula, Christians only take the religion class, while the Muslims go to the library, which has a small collection of books and videos of Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths.

For the Christian celebrations, such as Christmas and Eastern, the Muslims are invited, but not required, to attend the events.

“A lot of the kids participate with us. But the majority prefer to stay in the library or play soccer while we pray.” said Hazboun.

Spinnato and Hazboun agree that running a Catholic school where the majority of the students are Muslims will help to strengthen the ties between two communities, fostering interfaith dialogue and creating better living environment for Christians in Israel.

“It’s a good idea to take Muslim and Christian students together, because they live together,” said Salami, from the Ministry of Interior. “They build their cities, so this is a step of creating more inclusive communities.”

For Spinnato, being part of the order of the Holy Sepulchre gives the members an opportunity to strengthen their faith by being part of an organization with a specific mission, important for the Catholic Church and with clear impact in the Holy Land.

“We just don’t go parading around in fancy robes.” said Spinnato.

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