Christmas in the North: Celebrating the birth of Jesus in Mi’ilya

Mi’ilya is one of only two Greek Catholic - or Melkite - villages in Israel

Father Ibrahim Shoufani, the community’s priest, stands in the local Church in Mi'ilya (photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
Father Ibrahim Shoufani, the community’s priest, stands in the local Church in Mi'ilya
(photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
Nestled in the hills of the Western Galilee sits the Greek Catholic village of Mi’ilya. As Christmas approaches, some 3,200 residents don the streets with festive lights, Christmas trees and beautiful decorations in the weeks prior to the holy holiday.
Mi’ilya is one of only two Greek Catholic – or Melkite – villages in Israel.
The Melkites trace their history to early Christians in the first century CE from Antioch, which was formerly part of Syria and now part of Turkey.
Archaeologists have found that its history dates back to at least the late Bronze Age, being continually inhabited until the Byzantine period in 40 BCE, the Crusader period, the Ottoman Empire and beyond. Today, the city is built atop of a crusader fort that dates back to the 12th century and remains purely Christian.
Father Ibrahim Shoufani, the community’s priest, told The Jerusalem Post that ”as Christians living in Israel, we have the freedom to celebrate our religion without any problems or interference – we are Israeli.”
He said that they begin decorating the village on December 9, and everyone gets involved.
“We have visitors from the outside who come and visit during this time, including Jews and Muslims,” he explained. “We’re expecting thousands to come over the Christmas period.”
On the Friday before Christmas, “we host a 2 km. mini marathon, and people from all over come to take part.
“We have beautiful Christmas markets in the evenings and we have people from all faiths and places who come to see,” Shoufani said, adding that “We’ve been doing this for five years.”
He said that Christmas is very family orientated in Mi’ilya because some of the residents have children who study in other parts of the world, and they especially come back to celebrate.
On Christmas eve, Shoufani said that the community holds an evening mass at the local St. Mary Magdalen church, and has a special celebration afterwards.
“After mass, we walk together, sing at the statue of Jesus, and have a community dinner,” he said.
During the day, residents of the village gather at the church for morning mass.
“It’s a wonderful time of the year for Mi’ilya,” he said.
On a weekly basis, Shoufani said that they get about 300 to 400 people coming to Sunday mass. They usually have two services.
While sitting inside the church, he showed its various decorations to reporters, who were on a sponsored tour with Media Central. Up there, he pointed to a large painted cross, with writing below it which says “Jesus, King of the Jews.”
The church also posts beautiful painted works near the pulpit depicting different times of history in the life of Jesus.
Shoufani said that sermons are usually given in Arabic, but several words are said in Greek “here and there.”
According to Rabei Khamisy, an archaeologist at the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at Haifa University, Mi’ilya remained a Christian center.
He said that in the past, the Galilee and Southern Lebanon were not separated, and Christians were able to move freely between the two areas, adding that most local residents originate from Syria, southern Lebanon and Jordan.
Asked about the relationship between the Greek Catholics in the Galilee and those in Syria and Lebanon, Shoufani said it’s difficult, especially because some of their families are still there.
“We can’t go there; we can travel to Jordan and Egypt, but not to Syria and Lebanon,” he said, adding that Christian residents in the two areas do communicate. “We still have a connection with [Christians in Syria]. We continue to pray for them.”
Shoufani added that they also remain in close contact with Christians in the West Bank and Gaza. “We do try and visit each other during the holidays.”