'We’re not foreign, we’re from here'

In Haifa, Catholics fly Israeli flags at mass march celebrating Virgin Mary

Some participants at procession says it is a testament to the robustness of the Christian-Arab community in the Jewish state

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Arab-Christian Scouts march at the Virgin Mary Procession in Haifa, Israel on April 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Arab-Christian Scouts march at the Virgin Mary Procession in Haifa, Israel on April 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

On a gusty Sunday, about a dozen women and some older men pulled a 900-kilogram (2,000-pound) float featuring a life-size Madonna out of Haifa’s St. Joseph’s Church.

A marching band helped the group maintain a brisk pace, as they tugged through Downtown on thick ropes attached to the wheeled float that carries the cherished lynchpin of Haifa’s annual Virgin Mary Procession. It is a century-old Catholic tradition that thousands attend regularly, and which some view as a testament to the freedoms that Israel affords its Christians, as compared to persecution and oppression through much of the surrounding region.

After about 200 meters (656 feet), the incline grows steeper and those pulling began to stagger, prompting others – mainly young men from the local Arab-Christian minority — to take over the heavy lifting. As the band marched ahead, the men took turns pulling the float uphill, along a three-kilometer (two-mile) route with a 130-meter elevation, to Stella Maris Monastery, the home base for the ancient Catholic order known as the Carmelites.

The pulling is meant to be strenuous, locals explain, in line with the tradition of penitence through self-flagellation that occurs in Catholic communities around the Mediterranean and beyond. But unlike many of those austere expressions of devotion, the atmosphere at the Haifa procession is jovial, as regulars crack recurring jokes (“Next year, I’m bringing a forklift,” one man exclaims, prompting polite chuckles).

For some, the laid-back attitude is thanks to the fact that the Virgin Mary Procession, held on the second Sunday after Easter, has not yet been fully canonized, occupying a grey area that is between a local tradition and a religious rite.

Others, aware of the ruthless oppression of Christians throughout the region, are elated simply to be celebrating their faith openly and without fear in the public sphere.

Worshipers touch the float carrying the Madonna at the Virgin Mary Procession in Haifa, Israel on April 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“What you’re seeing here, that’s our tradition, playing out where we grew up,” said Fadi Talhamy, a 37-year-old father of two, as he shadowed the float, ready to relieve a fellow worshiper. “This feels like belonging. A validation that we’re not foreign, we’re from here: The State of Israel, which we love, and which gives us not only full freedom of worship, but resources to exercise it,” Talhamy said, gesturing at dozens of police officers, who each year close off several traffic arteries for the procession.

Some of the 3,000-odd participants of Sunday’s procession traveled from afar to attend, including from Ramallah and other cities in the Palestinian Authority. Several dozen Catholic youths attending the Scouts movement in the West Bank marched in Haifa, their uniforms bearing the Palestinian flag. They played alongside other Arab Catholic Scouts from Israel, who were flying an Israeli flag and the coat of arms of their church.

A Palestinian Scouts leader marches at the Virgin Mary Procession in Haifa, Israel on April 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

High-ranking Church officials, including the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, were also in attendance, singing psalms and hymns in honor of the Virgin Mary, as they marched ahead of the Madonna.

The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, in pink, attends with other clergy the Virgin Mary Procession in Haifa, Israel on April 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“To some Israelis, these events may seem self-evident, but to an Arab, this is remarkable,” said Carmeline Ashkar, a Christian Arab from the town of Fasuta in the Galilee, who heads an association promoting the integration of Christians into all areas of Israeli society. “Elsewhere in the region, we need to keep a low profile, know our place, maybe get paraded on Christmas and put back on ice — if we’re at all tolerated,” she added.

Jewish-Christian relations are not without tensions in Israel, where some Jewish extremists harass Christians routinely, and even vandalize their cemeteries.

Still, Israel is one of a handful of Middle Eastern countries with a growing Christian minority, whose numbers increase by approximately one percent each year. By some metrics, their minority of about 200,000 people (or 7% of all Arab Israelis) isn’t just growing — it’s flourishing.

A teacher leads his students at the Virgin Mary Procession in Haifa, Israel on April 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/ Times of Israel)

Christian Arabs in Israel in 2021 had a median salary of more than NIS 11,000 ($3,000), a figure almost identical to the national average and 26% percent higher than the salary for Muslims. Part of the reason for the difference could be that, on average, Christian Arabs marry late (30 for men and 26 for women) and have fewer children (2) than both Muslims (2.6) and Jews (2.43), which facilitates advanced studies and a higher income.

Among Christian Arabs, 53% of high school graduates obtained an academic degree, compared to 34% in the general Arab society and 47% of Jews. The relatively egalitarian family structure of Arab Christian families allows for a high percentage of women with an academic degree (72% of Arab Christians with a master’s degree are women, compared to 63% in the general population).

Consecutive mayors have promoted Haifa as a hub and model for interfaith dialogue and coexistence. Christian Arabs constitute about half of the 35,000 Arabs who live in this predominantly Jewish port city of roughly 285,000 residents.

Arab-Israeli Scouts march at the Virgin Mary Procession in Haifa, Israel on April 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Freedom-of-worship issues lie at the heart and origins of the procession, which began in 1919 when local Christians feared that Ottoman authorities would demolish the Stella Maris Monastery that Crusaders built atop the Carmel some 400 years ago. From Stella Maris, whose official name is the Monastery of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (the “lady” in question being the Virgin Mary), the worshipers smuggled the Madonna to St. Joseph’s for safekeeping.

After locals were assured the Ottomans would not destroy the church, the Madonna was returned in the laborious climb, performed by pedestrian movers whose route determined the path of the present-day procession.

Today, the procession is also a reminder of the oft-overlooked religious significance of this port city, which, from a pilgrimage point of view, sometimes seems to dwell in the shadow of more obvious destinations like Jerusalem and Nazareth.

Carmelite nuns attend the Virgin Mary Procession in Haifa, Israel on April 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The event attracts many people with disabilities who believe attending would help them heal, according to Fadua Srougi, a regular participant. Another tradition involves dressing young girls in the iconic Sancta Camisia, the blue headcover that symbolizes the veil that the Virgin Mary supposedly wore when giving birth to Jesus.

A mother and her sister hold a baby dressed as Virgin Mary at a Catholic procession in Haifa, Israel on April 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

The girls wear the outfits for the entire month of May and their parents like to pose with them at the foot of the Madonna in the float.

Albeit not the original whose moving initiated the march, the float Madonna still is the subject of much excitement and many selfies.

To many, it is a portal through which they can touch the history of the Carmelites, one of the oldest orders of Catholic Christianity, whose full name is the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel. In the 803 years of its existence, this influential order has produced a string of saints and notable personalities, from Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross to the Dutch anti-Nazi objector Titus Brandsma.

For Arab Israelis, the Carmelite traditions resonate also because they are centered on one of Carmel’s best-known residents: the Prophet Elijah, who, according to the Bible, staged some of his most memorable acts on this mountain. The prominence of a biblical figure in the founding theology of a Catholic order is unusual, as most are centered around saints and figures from the Christian Bible.

Watching the procession from the sidelines, Bassam Ghattas pointed out a few details to his two daughters, whom he is raising with his Jewish husband.

Bassam Ghattas, wearing a grey shirt, shows his two children the Virgin Mary Procession in Haifa, Israel on April 30, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“I remember attending this procession since I was as small as they are now,” said Ghattas, gesturing at the children. He added: “We’re not raising the kids as Christians or Jews, but we brought them anyway because they’re Haifans. This is part of who they are.”

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