Wednesday, April 4, 2007


Nazareth is a small town on a hill in central Galilee, about halfway between Haifa on the Mediterranean coast and the Sea of Galilee. Lower Nazareth has an estimated population of 70,000. The majority of residents are Arab citizens of Israel, about 35-40% of whom are Christians and 55-60% are Muslims. The adjacent city of Nazareth Illit (upper Nazareth) has a population of 44,000 Israeli Jews.

Besides that, Nazareth is the hometown of my lovely wife and her family. And when I say family, I don't mean family in the American sense. I mean family in the sense that the family has no end, it seems. We enjoy visiting there from time to time to see family (we're working on seeing all of them) and friends. Also, to eat good Middle Eastern home cooking, which also is without end. I usually try to fast before I go in order to be able to be as hungry as I can, so as not to disappoint or offend my overly-gracious hosts.

The worst pronunciation of "Nazareth" I ever heard was an old woman country preacher on community access television call it "Nazariss" (which rhymes with "Lazarus"). Rima just loves it when I say it like that.

Rima was born and raised in a house up on the hill overlooking the city. It is a typical Arab-looking town...
...full of churches...

(The Catholic church)

(The Baptist church where Rima used to go)

...and mosques.
The Greek Orthodox Church (the "Mary's Well" church, supposedly where the angel appeared to Mary) is just below where Rima lived. It is simple, no frills.
Just down the road is the more ornate Roman Catholic Church, or the "Basilica of the Annunciation", which has remains of living quarters from a long time ago. It has obviously received more money from all over the world, which explains why everything looks so clean and nice, inside...
...and out.
Right next to the Catholic church is the Nazareth shuk, or market.
It is an Arab shuk that is markedly different than the Jewish shuk we frequent in our town.
The smells are like your spice rack multiplied ten times, so don't go there if you are hungry...
...or if you are the kind to lose your appetite easily.
If you are fortunate to go to an Arab wedding party, be prepared to have fun because they know how to party.

(This guy has obviously had one too many)

Nazareth used to be a fun-loving place to go, but lately it is becoming more uncomfortable to be in. Most of it has to do with the aggressiveness and hostility of the Muslims who share the city with the Christians. For most of its history over the past 2000 years, Nazareth has been primarily a Christian town, but during Israel's war of Independence in 1948, an influx of Muslim Arab refugees from the surrounding villages and towns that were destroyed changed the population of Nazareth from having a Christian majority to having a Muslim majority. And they brought their hostility with them.
The biggest flashpoint came about 10 years ago when Preparations for the Pope's visit to Nazareth in 2000 triggered highly publicized tensions related to the Basilica of the Annunciation. Israel gave permission for construction of a paved plaza to handle the expected thousands of Christian pilgrims caused Muslim protests and occupation of the proposed site, which is considered the grave of a nephew of Saladin. (His nephew, mind you.) This means the land is partly waqf (Islamic religious endowment) land, meaning the Muslims said it was theirs and it is holy.
(Muslim prayer at the controversial site in Nazareth)

Initially, Israel gave some approval for subsequent plans for a large mosque to be constructed at the site. Not just a mosque, but a giant mosque which would dwarf and hide any sight of the church. This led to protests from Christian leaders worldwide, which continued after the papal visit. Finally, in 2002, a special government commission permanently halted construction of the mosque, which Islamic leaders called it a declaration of war. Today it is simply a plaza area for the public, though Muslims often take it over during their prayer times, daring anyone to get in their way.

More recently, on New Year's Day in Nazareth this year, local Muslims marched provocatively shouting "Islam is the only truth" and "Islam will dominate the world" as they again called for the mosque to be built. The entire article is here and it describes the problem very well.
This is indicative of the problems Arab Christians, in general, face. Instead of fighting for the land which has been in their family for generations, most Christians of the Middle East are simply leaving. In places like Bethlehem, another historically Christian town, Christians are leaving by the droves because of Islamic persecution (see another good article here on Bethlehem Christians). Rima had relatives that lived in east Jerusalem, but recently moved into Israel because of Muslim hostility.

Nevertheless, if one stays out of the Muslim areas of Nazareth, it is a great place to be. There are the most wonderful people you can find anywhere and it gives you the feeling that you are actually in the Middle East, which despite the problems, is a good thing.
If you are interested, read more about Nazareth here.

FYI - If anyone decides to ask me if "anything good can come out of Nazareth", that joke has already been told. Many times. Really. (If you really want to know the answer to the question, the answer is "YES"!)


Stucky said...

Hey Rallert,
Stucky here. Rutz sent me the link to this here blog a couple weeks ago and i have been "tuning in" since then. thanks for doing this, i really enjoy reading about your life there. know we are praying for you.
and hey, we are only 4 years from a 20 year reunion.

J. K. Jones said...

Good to hear from you.

Interesting post.

We're praying too.

Abu Yossi said...

stuck, no bball at the 20 year reunion - i'm still hurting from the last one.

Michael said...

Fascinating post. I really only know Nazareth (Netzrat) from the road signs on the routes to and from Karmiel. Interesting look at the city, both as a place and a society.

I'm sorry to hear about the Muslim hostility to Christian Arabs. It's something I've noticed here, too, when people realize I'm an oleh hadash. If the person is Jewish or Druze, he's very welcoming, if the person is Christian Arab, he's friendly. If he's Muslim Arab, he rolls his eyes.
It's not everyone, though; the fruit market downstairs from my apartment is owned and run by Muslim Arabs, and it's the best in town. Friendly people there, too.

Abu Yossi said...

On behalf of the Arabs, I apologize for the way they behave (for whatever that's worth). If you find some friendly Arabs, they are great friends to have.

Michael said...

I don't think you need to apologize; sometimes I vent a little too hard.

I have found friendly Arabs here in Israel (muslim and Christian); they're not hard to find, and they are good people.

Oddly enough, the only times I've every felt a sense of violent hostility from Arabs was when I went to school in Dearborn, Michigan...