Last Tuesday morning, four pilgrims from Russia knocked on the door of the Greek Orthodox church in Kafr Kana in the Galilee. They chose to celebrate the first day of 2008 in this way. After a long pause, the slit in the iron gate opened slightly and a monk blurted out at them: "Closed, closed."

The pilgrims, one of them a nun, did not understand. They belong to the Orthodox Church, for which January 1 is not an official holiday. They had been told that in the Holy Land things are different, that in Kafr Kana all the Christians celebrate together - they were promised a morning mass at church.

Disappointed, they took out cameras and snapped pictures of the church from the outside. This is not the only souvenir one can take home from Kafr Kana.

Tradition holds that this is where Jesus performed a great miracle, when he came to the wedding of an impoverished couple and turned the water in the celebrants' cups to wine. To this day, Kafr Kana wine is sold in bottles bearing labels that associate the wine with that wedding. "There are those who really do believe it is from then," said a salesman at a souvenir shop in the village last week.

Before they went hunting for souvenirs, the pilgrims turned to the nearby Franciscan church, where a mass was indeed in progress, unaware of the tangle in which they had found themselves. This is the story in brief: About 15 years ago, very quietly, Christians in the Galilee decided to unify their holiday - that is to say, to celebrate Christmas and New Year's Eve according to the Gregorian calendar (which is followed in most of the world) and to celebrate Easter according to the Julian calendar (which is followed in the Greek Orthodox world). The Greek Orthodox agreed to celebrate on the 24th and the 31st of December; the other Catholics agreed to accept the date of the Orthodox Easter, which usually falls in April, closer to the Jewish Passover.

The decision came from the grass roots, from the believers, out of a practical and even sad motive.

"In any case, we are a small Christian minority within a large Muslim minority, and our numbers are even dwindling," said one woman from Kafr Kana. "And then the Muslims laugh at us because of our many dates, joking that with us Jesus was born twice, died twice and was resurrected twice. This is not pleasant."

What arose from the grass roots received the approval of the most senior echelons in the various churches, which are following with concern the shrinkage of the Christian community in Israel that is now estimated at 140,000 people.

The creative solution was also a convenient social arrangement: The holidays were merged and the community felt more solidarity.

The Greek Catholic priest, Maroun Tannous, was the first to implement the arrangement in Kafr Kana. According to him, "The communities felt embarrassed in face of the jokes and anyway, here in Kafr Kana the families are close and intermarry among the various Christian communities."

In the nearby villages of Reina, Rama and Yefia, they also implemented the arrangement. However, from the outset, the arrangement was not perfect. Most reluctant were the Greek Orthodox, the source of whose authority is the Patriarchate in Jerusalem.

The vast majority of its priests come from Greece - that is to say, they are not Israelis and not Palestinians, as is usual in the other churches, and it is possible that this is one reason for their hesitancy. The local priests, who have grown up in the complicated reality, are more open to solutions that the Greeks find hard to accept.

"They are difficult people," the Catholics say of them, adding that the Greeks are more dependent on money that they receive from the Patriarchate and therefore they tend to more conservatism and obedience.

"Their mentality is difficult," complains Father Tannous, who very much wants to institutionalize the arrangement. "Among us, there are also priests with money, landowners, who are less dependent."

Former days of glory

Father Thomas, a Greek Catholic priest in Kafr Kana, is a pilot. Ten years ago, when he was 43, he took out a civil aviator's license. Since then he has flown every week and he says that in the sky, "you are the least close to God. There you have to concentrate on other things."

Father Thomas supports the unification of the celebrations, which he sees as more of a social measure than a theological measure.

He hopes to restore the former days of glory when the Christians worshipped in a single church. This is what the Greek Catholics tried to do when about 300 years ago when they split from the Greek Orthodox Church and accepted the authority of the Pope in Rome. "The Orthodox see us as traitors and the Vatican sort of as stepchildren," he says, summing up his community's situation.

On the threshold of the church where Thomas conducts worship, Elias Adel is smoking a cigarette. "It's all politics," he grumbles. "I hate them all. Both theirs and ours." And indeed, even within the churchly establishment, there are power struggles.

On New Year's Eve, the Christians in Reina went out to celebrate in the main street of the village and the Muslims came and spoiled the fun. In the cautious local jargon, "they gave us problems," so much so that the police had to intervene.

"It isn't because they are Muslims, it's because even though they are Muslims they drink more than the Christians," says Father Elias Oudeh, the Roman Catholic priest of Reina.

Oudeh, a native of Ramallah, was disappointed that the Orthodox church in Reina did not open its gates for worship.

"In Jerusalem they never in fact agreed to this unification," he says sorrowfully. "I myself once wrote to the patriarch and he replied that 'people will do what they want.' But it doesn't work that way. There are local priests in the middle and also politics that spoils things." His church was packed with worshippers who listened to his conciliatory sermon with not only holy thoughts in their hearts.

"The Orthodox have thick skulls," complained one woman, knocking on her own head to demonstrate. "Not like us, the Catholics. Wherever they are, there is a war. Because of that we need to unite. But that isn't going so well. There are always opponents, there are always interests."

A monk at the Greek patriarchate in Jerusalem openly admitted he was against the unification: "This distances us from our tradition," he asserts. "There is no need to distort the tradition in order to embrace 'the other.' It is important to take the theological issue into account as well."

But he is not living as a minority in the Galilee and he is not following with sorrow the disappearance of the community from the area in which it originated.